Do Won Chang and his wife Jin Sook landed on U.S. soil from South Korea in 1981 amid a chaotic time in their home country. Martial law had been lifted that year, following the assassination of military dictator Park Chung-hee.
“At the time [people in] South Korea weren’t living as well… The opportunities were really narrow,” Do Won told
Today Do Won, 57, and Jin Sook, 60, employ 43,000 people (nearly 11,000 of whom are full-time) in 790 stores in 48 countries via fast fashion phenom Forever 21, which now has $4.4 billion in sales. That’s enough for the married couple to land a spot at No. 222 on The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, with a combined net worth of $3 billion.
The journey from a new life in Los Angeles to landing on the exclusive wealth list began with 19-hour work days. The couple had flown into LAX after a short stop in Hawaii, where they spent less than a day securing a green card for themselves and Do Won’s parents. They arrived in Los Angeles, where his sister lived, on a Saturday. Do Won, just 22, wasted no time. He scoured the classified section for jobs, landed an interview with a local coffee shop and by Monday morning he was washing dishes and prepping meals in the coffee shop’s kitchen. “I was making minimum wage [around $3 an hour]… it wasn’t enough to get by,” he recalled. So he tacked on eight more hours at a gas station. To supplement his income even further, he started a small office cleaning business that kept him busy until midnight. Jin Sook, 25, worked as a hairdresser, a skill she learned back home.
“I had dreamed of coming to the U.S. since I was in the sixth grade,” Do Won said.
A decade later he realized that dream, but not before getting married, something he felt would help him transition to new life in an unfamiliar country. He was set up by friends who had introduced him to Jin Sook, still a common tradition in Korea. “It wasn’t a [strict arrangement] but we agreed to meet, not just to date but with the purpose of getting married,” explained Do Won, a devout Christian, who, with Jin Sook, still goes to early morning prayer at a local church nearly every day.
Shortly after, the newlyweds took the leap across the Pacific. “Even now, but especially at that time, there were many opportunities in America,” he said, speaking to this reporter in Korean. “There were a lot of people chasing the American Dream.”
While pumping gas, Do Won noticed the men in the garment industry drove the nicest cars. “I asked these drivers, ‘What is it that you do for a living?’” He was inspired to take a job at a clothing store, where he was determined to learn the ropes. “I treated it like it was my own business and the boss really liked me,” he recalled.
After three years in the U.S., the couple managed to pool $11,000 in savings. In 1984 they opened a 900-square-foot apparel store called Fashion 21 in the garment district abutting downtown Los Angeles. Do Won says the previous shop owner, who also sold clothes, brought in a mere $30,000 in annual sales. Fashion 21 hit $700,000 in its first year by capitalizing on wholesale close-outs, acquiring merchandise directly from manufacturers at heavily discounted prices.
The business did so well that the couple opened a new store every six months – the modest beginning of today’s fast fashion juggernaut Forever 21.
Do Won Chang feels blessed. “I came here with almost nothing and I’ll always have a grateful heart toward America for the opportunities that it’s provided me… And I wanted to pay it forward,” he said. During the Great Recession of 2008, armed with strong cash flow from his privately-held company, he says he opened more stores and aimed to create 7,000 jobs within a year. At an annual prayer meeting with office employees, he said he announced plans to focus not only on sales and profit but on increasing jobs. Do Won claims to have met that goal.
But after years of growth and ambitious expansion, it appears that the company is facing some setbacks. Amid stiff competition from online retailers, the chain has closed or downsized some of its larger stores in the past year; sales in 2015 were flat over the previous year.
Do Won acknowledged the hurdles but is still optimistic. “The garment industry right now isn’t easy” said Do Won, who mixes his Korean with some English. “Traffic in malls has decreased with the [proliferation] of online [sales]… but we’ve prepared for [e-commerce] for quite some time now. With our aggressive expansion into international markets, we did struggle a bit but we’re [positioned to overcome] that this year.”
Earlier this year Forever 21 was reportedly late to pay some vendors. Meanwhile a shipping company that delivered clothes to Forever 21 scrapped an exclusive contract to cover 171 stores, citing a nearly 50% drop in business from the retailer from the same time a year ago. Do Won maintained that “business is doing well.
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