Singer-songwriter Debbie Gibson made her mark on the pop charts from the late 1980s through the early 1990s. During that span, she had two hit albums, a number of popular songs, and a perfume line -- she was a pop culture superstar. Just a few years later -- basically the end of 1990 -- it turned out the public could, in fact, shake their love for the pop singer. She never had a major hit after that year and remained on the edges of fame.
Gibson was a pop star who had a moment, some might even say a long one by pop standards. In the end, however, she could not keep up with trends or maintain her standing. But when her albums started selling in the thousands instead of the millions, nobody called it a musical apocalypse. They noted correctly that pop culture changes and very few artists manage to stay relevant for more than a few years.
That's what's happening in retail, and it's fair to equate the recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Forever 21 with Gibson's downfall. The fast-fashion retailer was not a victim of the internet or declining mall traffic. Those things didn't help, but the mall staple was forced into bankruptcy because it's in a business that requires constant new hits, and, well, Forever 21 stopped having those.
It's not an apocalypse
How people shop has changed, but retailers including Target, Walmart, and even Gap's Old Navy, another fast-fashion chain like Forever 21, have shown that it's possible to succeed in this climate. The stores that have failed or are teetering generally suffer from one or two major problems (usually both): They have too much debt to make a major pivot, and they have management teams that made bad choices. Toys R Us did not die because online retailers started selling toys. The chain collapsed because it had huge leveraged buyout debt and management that waited for too long to modernize its stores.
Retail is a generally unforgiving game. Even massively successful chains have to constantly adapt or they risk becoming Sears, a one-time giant left to wither and die a slow, painful death. Forever 21 made its mark by being trendy. To succeed, it needed to either stay trendy or find a way to adapt into something else. That's not easy to do, and it explains why brands that had a moment -- shout out to you Benetton and Swatch watches -- generally fade away (even if they don't completely die).
It's hard to stay 21 forever
Even the slowest-moving successful retailers change over time. Costco has the luxury of making most of its money from its memberships, so it can evolve slowly. The warehouse club, however, has made major changes, including adding a variety of delivery options and embracing the internet.
It's easy to say that stores are dying because of a scary phenomenon called the retail apocalypse. It's truer to say that the flaws of poorly managed retailers are evident faster because people have more shopping options now.
Teenagers still go to the mall, albeit maybe in slightly smaller numbers. They walk by Forever 21 and don't buy as much (if they buy anything). That's not because of the internet, it's because the merchandise on the shelf no longer connects with what has historically been a fickle audience.
If you sell trendy clothes, you have to stay on-trend, and somehow manage to remain hip in a market where longevity inherently makes most brands less cool. Forever 21 is the latest retailer that has proven incapable of doing that. Call that a management failure. Call it inevitable. Just don't tie it to a broader theme that's largely a false narrative.