The Cheap Detective Takes on Forever 21 and Strawberry

Once upon a time, expensive clothes had a right to look down on their parvenu cousins. Back in the day, designer fashions featured, along with superior fabrics and sewing, a certain je ne sais quoi, a particular panache that at least partly justified their ridiculous price tags.

That was then. Now, one look at the charmingly tiered polka-dotted cotton skirt at Forever 21 on Union Square, dispels any doubts: Though this item is clearly a Marni knockoff, at $29.80 it is around $700 cheaper than the Marni original. The cotton is delightfully worn—just like at Marni! And the print is jaunty and just a little jolie laide—ditto!

Actually, we’ve been fascinated by Forever 21 ever since it opened last winter. First there’s that name, with its odd echo of Century 21. (But really, as we have pointed out previously in this space, could there be anything worse than being 21 forever? It certainly wasn’t such a thrill-packed, happy time for us, and we suspect we are hardly alone in this matter.) On a recent steamy afternoon, we decided to test our cheap-is-just-as-good thesis with a visit to Forever 21 and its even rattier next-door neighbor, the much maligned but in fact surprisingly worthwhile Strawberry. In particular, we wanted to see if either—or both—of these shops were selling that black and white ersatz-Mexican faux vintage skirt we’ve been seeing on every third person on the street this summer. (Actually we love this skirt, though we haven’t bought one, probably because we purchased the authentic version at a vintage clothing show a couple of years ago for $100 and have worn it exactly once. The reason we bought it was that another shopper was standing over us and insisting she really, really wanted it too. This led to an arousal of our killer instinct, an insane conviction that we had to win, and an aura of guilt and shame subsequently surrounding the beleagured item.)

A faux-Mexican skirt, perfectly OK if a bit skimpy, is indeed for sale at Forever 21 and it is only $24.80. (All the prices here end in 80 for some mysterious reason). Actually, it might even be cheaper than $24.80, since a sign at the door says “Buy 1 get 2 free, 2nd and 3rd item equal or lesser value.”

We’re not exactly sure how this works—it’s a little too much math for us—but we think it means we can get the metal mesh stars and stripes halter top—it’s made of the same stuff as those Whiting & Davis purses from the 1920s —for free (it would have been great to wear on the 4th) along with a lavender lace-trimmed tank complete with padded bra that we assume is meant for customers whose 21st birthday is still light years away.

Next door at Strawberry, where the air conditioning is broken (we suffer in this job!), the fake-Mexican skirt is actually far superior—it’s delightfully voluminous, sports a smattering of sequins, and is a mere $24.99. If that’s not enough, a Pucci-esque purse can be had for $9.99, and one of those metallic-knit wrap-and-tie ballet sweaters so popular this season is an inviting $19.99. Though it's virtually identical to the metallic-knit ballet sweater we saw at Forever 21, it somehow feels slightly cheesier, which raises the question: Is it only the broken a/c and slothful atmosphere at Strawberry that makes this item seem declasse? When you’re shopping, how many times are you seduced more by the store’s atmosphere than by the intrinsic value of the item itself? If this sweater were at Bergdorf's on a velvet hanger and with a $199.99 price tag, would it suddenly smell that much sweeter?

 
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