Forever 21 Expands: Big in Japan and the Plus-Size Market

Here we grow again.

Fast fashion chain Forever 21, who we last observed fearlessly packing their skinny jeans and shiny tops into six large units in properties owned by bankrupt mall owner General Growth Properties, is continuing its aggressive push into the Japanese market. After the considerable success of their first store in the Harajuku district --the Japan External Trade Organization reported a record one million+ customers in the first two months -- a second flagship is slated for Tokyo, where they can go head to head with low-priced competitors H&M and Uniqlo. Forever 21's not stopping there, look for more stores in Ginza and Funabashi.

Fueling the frenzy, both in Japan and stateside, is the irresistible combination of trendy items and low prices.

Tokyo resident and fashion consultant Timothy Schepis notes that the 26 year old retailer's fortune was already made before the recession hit. He told me that the recession in Japan has changed the Japanese consumer's priorities regarding fashion. "Now you are more likely to see the Japanese consumer wearing an outfit mostly from a fast fashion company topped off with one key luxury piece such as a handbag, shoes or other accessory," he says.

In the United States, shoppers perusing the similarly au courant Bebe or Abercrombie & Fitch may be reluctant to snap up those of-the-moment sequined vests or embellished boyfriend cardigans for $50 or $75. Of course, A&F does have sales (and lots more merchandise appears to be taking a turn at the markdown racks in the back of the stores). But that means an anxious shopper has to wait, and in A&F's case, brave their eardrum busting techno pop and dim lighting to pick through their often tousled displays.

At Forever 21, similar styles only set you back $20 --at full price. This allows for the thrill of the impulse buy, along with the pleasure of snapping up a ring or earrings and still not spending over $30. And for those dedicated to the art of trawling, Forever 21 rewards by offering constant refreshment of merchandise. They can do this because the stores turnover at an astonishing rate, but also because they carry a healthy mix of private label goods as well as those from other suppliers allowing them to replenish stock daily at some stores.

They're also ahead of the, ahem, curve on offering styles in extended sizes. Faith 21 is a collection for the fashion-forward woman with an ample figure that debuted in spring of 2009. This is not just a couple of pieces made in larger sizes, but a full array of dresses, tops, pants, skirts and sweaters. Given that Torrid, a teen plus-size retailer owned by Hot Topic, had double-digit growth in online sales for the fiscal year ending January 31, it's perfectly fair to speculate that the privately-held Forever 21 is growing at a similar rate. Which can only spell trouble for A&F, Bebe and even the beleaguered H&M, both here and abroad.