Thursday, October 20, 2011

F21 in Brussels: mixed feelings

I was strutting around town with a bright yellow plastic bag today. Took it to see some nice places, too – it even got to visit the Flemish parliament with me. I needed something to hold my books, papers and most important of all: my flashy pink lego lunch box.

One needs to gear up to watch democracy in action, obviously. There’s no shame in the lunch box – it was a birthday present and got me some very envious reactions from my female colleagues – but I was a little embarassed to show up there with this particular bag. Not just because I don't like looking like a crazy bag lady. It just happened that I grabbed the bag closest to me when I had to leave, and accidentally took a bag of a brand I’m not particularly keen on being linked with. You may or may not have guessed by now I’m talking about Forever 21.

Two Forever 21-shops recently opened up in Brussels and Antwerp. A lot of people were excited about it. I get the allure, especially for young and penniless fashionista’s. Who wouldn’t love a brand that makes clothes based on the best designer trends and sells them at a highly affordable rate? They’re quick too, because the collection is updated every few weeks.

I'd heard some pretty bad stuff about the company, though. Tales of bad working circumstances. Copyright infringements. They don’t just reference the big fashion houses. They make very close copies, and not just from the likes of Chanel and Prada, but from up-and-coming designers too. Over the last few years, they were sued over 50 times.

I was a little wary of the new store before the doors even opened. Still, I decided to join my little sister and go take a look. After all, I buy and consume things with a shady background all the time. I try to avoid it, but when the choice is between what’s right for the world (do I sound like I’m wearing goat wool socks in sandals right now or what?) and what I want, I usually choose for the latter. Don’t we all? I’ll feel a bit guilty about it, but comfort myself with the thought that ‘at least I’m conscious of the problem’. So I’m a hypocrite, but at least I know I’m a hypocrite. Which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, but still, it hushes up my conscience. Maybe I should get a cricket.

Do you think Pinocchio would shop at F21?

I won’t expand on my exact impressions when entering the store. Suffice it to say that nothing there could have enticed me to think about buying something. Too big, too chaotic (everything’s neat, but it’s a cacaphony of styles), uncomfortable looking fabric (I hate the feel of cheap chiffon, it scratches and feels suffocating). It didn’t speak to me at all. I mean, how cheap is a store that won’t even iron its clothing before selling it?

I’m glad I was spared the dilemma. Maybe someday I’ll bump into something F21 that I do like, and I honestly don’t know if I would buy it or not. After all, I buy H&M, even though I’m pretty sure their clothes aren’t made under the best circumstances. (Neither are luxury brand-clothes, by the way.) But at least they try to keep up appearances. They do charity work. They don’t try to convert employees. I have to admit it irked me to see a lot of Belgian bloggers raving about the new F21 shops, and covering the opening events. I might shop in dubious stores, but I wouldn't feel good about actively promoting them.

What about you? Do you sometimes feel guilty while or after shopping? Do you factor in ethics in some or other way?


  1. When I started blogging, I also start discovering a lot of US blogs and everybody was wearing clothes by F21. And you know that sometimes, if you have the right styling, things can look amazing. So I was really looking forward to my visit at the Brussels store. And it was a disappointment. You descibed it very well: too crowded, too chaotic, too much nylon. A friend told me that the Antwerp store is much better...I'll give it a try...

    Regarding the 'guilty' part, yes sometimes I feel guilty but mostly because I have already a lot of clothes. Ethics is very important and I avoid the 'usual suspects', but it's also so difficult to find reliable information...

    Hope you'll have a great w-e!

  2. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts here as I have exactly the same feelings and as a result, I try to avoid shopping on the high street at all (though I don't always manage it). Ethics are increasingly important to me, especially after reading Lucy Siegle's book, 'To Die For' (it's about fashion). Talking of books, thank you so much for taking the time to recommend the book by Laurent Binet to me. I'm definitely going to put it on my reading list.

  3. AL de highstreet winkels doen dat nu eenmaal, zara is ook echt verschrikkelijk op dat vlak, maar voel ik me schuldig? Nope. Ik heb gewoon geen geld voor designerstuff so boo frickin hoo.

    I need die brooddoos btw :D

  4. Rosalind: you're welcome! I have the Siegle book, but haven't found the time to read it. Definitely will in the immediate future, though.

    En ja, de brooddoos maakt mijn boterhammen een pak hipper deze dagen. ^^

  5. I had absolutely no idea. That shows how naive I am. F21 does not exists here in France so I discovered the brand when I went to study in the United States two years ago. And like you said, the stores felt really messy, so many different styles of clothing put together. But still, as a "budgetarily challenged" person, I'd shop there and enjoy it because I'd come back with unexpensive but quite well-designed items. I also feel like F21 quality is better than H&M's.

    Now, knowing that they copy young designers, it'd probably be a dilemma for me to shop there. But, who I am kidding, i would still do.

    Absolute B of Incognito

    PS: I don't think Pinocchio would shop at F21, but he should, he's been wearing the same clothes for 30 years now.

  6. Awesome lunch box btw, where can I find it ???!

    Absolute B.

  7. Hey Absolute B, I don't think you're naive not to know about this. So many people don't. Brands don't exactly hang out banners with everything they do wrong written on them...

    The lunch box is sold online here:

    and here:

  8. This post is really interesting. I find that there's definitely some inherent conflict in supporting any non-local designers/shops/retail conglomerates who ship cheap labor overseas and don't adequately compensate and provide for their workers. However, buying only local from an entity that scrupulously protects its workers is difficult, limiting, and expensive since the opposite is so pervasive in fashion.

    Do you have any suggestions for where to ethically shop? I'd love to find alternatives that don't break the bank (easier said than done, I know!).

    Hello, Framboise!