How to Shop at Forever 21 Without Looking Like You Shop at Forever 21

Because budget clothes can still look chic—provided you know what to look for. We share our go-to tips and tricks.

1) Avoid obviously serged ruffles.

A sure sign that something is cheaply made is an obvious detail hem. The thread used to finish the ruffle on the left may be the same color as the background fabric, but it’s so densely concentrated (the result of using an industrial-grade server) that it ends up looking darker. A higher-quality garment would have been made with fabric of a denser weft and warp that wouldn’t unravel as quickly and therefore wouldn’t require a serged hem. If you buy clothes with ruffle detailing at F21, it’s best to stick with pieces where the ruffle is folded back under itself (right), leaving a smooth finish on the end.

2) Buy patterns on certain fabrics.

F21’s cotton and rayon pieces fade and pill quickly in the wash, which becomes especially obvious on articles of clothing that have been screened in the contrasting colors used in patterns. It’s better to stick with polyester and viscose, which hold dye better and don’t pill.

3) Make a beeline for the Love 21 room.

This is the retailer’s “contemporary” brand, designed with an audience of twenty- and thirtysomethings in mind rather than teenagers. Designs are more sophisticated, the color palette is less crazy, and there’s a stronger emphasis on quality trimmings and fabric. It’s also where you’ll find most of the Forever 21 pieces you see in fashion mags, and the prices really aren’t noticeably higher than what’s available in the rest of the store.

4) Just say no to banded hems and sleeves—especially when made with different materials.

The delicate nature of lace makes it difficult to finish and hem—hence why higher-quality lace shirts are so expensive. The thick banded hem you see at left solves the problem of it quickly unraveling, but it’s also pretty darn tacky. Even worse is the satin shirt at right with the stretchy viscose used as a quick fix. We suspect this was an easy way to make a shiny but inflexible fabric more curve-friendly, but bleh. It’s not even the same color as the satin. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

5) Leave bodycon to Hervé Léger.

There’s a reason Amanda Bynes and company look so flawless in their bandage dresses and skirts—the thick, highly elastic fabric and wide-set bandage strips smooth bulges (and hide the Spanx taking care of the rest). The flimsy cotton versions at Forever 21 won’t hold their shape past one or two washes (and they won’t hold to your body for very long the first time you wear ’em), so we say don’t even bother. If you’re going to ignore this advice, at least opt for a piece with raised detailing (right)—the added texture will distract from any lumps you don’t want to call attention to.

6) Two more things about skirts.

Now that we’ve told you to avoid, here’s what’s okay to buy: flowy circle skirts, as long as they’re lined. Whether it’s because of sweat or static cling, skirts without a lining will stick to right to your legs—not a good look. Now, back to what to avoid: pleated skirts, especially in pastel colors. We know it’s tempting to pick up this trendy item at a trendy store, but Forever 21 fabrics are so prone to wrinkles that it ruins the tidy look, which is the whole point. Plus, you have to be so careful about ironing pleated skirts, it’s just not worth the time.

6) Ignore everything strapless unless you’re an A cup.

And you’ve got to be a pretty perky A cup at that. There’s not a single thing in Forever 21 that’s boned properly or made in a sturdy enough fabric to support a decent-size rack and/or not slide down a strapless bra. If you don’t want to be constantly hoisting up your dress all night, don’t go down this road.

7) Don’t discount denim.

Everyone hits up Forever 21 for trendy going-out/weekend tops. But next time you’re in there, take a closer look at the jean/jean short selection. They won’t hold up as long as a higher-quality pair, but if you’re smart about your selection there are good finds to be had. Be patient, and dig through the piles to find actual denim (not denim-colored fabric) that has a lighter wash on the front portion of the thigh. Skinny jeans with some stretch are generally a pretty good bet. We’ve worn these cutoffs (right) for three summers now, and they’re still holding up.

8) Never buy this fabric or this knit.

As longtime budget shoppers, there are two fabrics we can immediately pick out on anyone, anywhere, as being from Forever 21 (or an equally unpricey clothing supplier): the “distressed” cotton on the right and the diamond weave you see on the left. Though we don’t totally hate the look of the distressed cotton—there is something very California cool about it—both are dead giveaways. If you don’t want to look like you’re wearing Forever 21 clothes, definitely avoid these.

9) A note on jewelry.

F21 is an amazing resource for sparkly costume jewelry—especially big necklaces and trussed-up stud earrings. The trick is to avoid anything with a large area of painted enamel (often found on cocktail rings and big dangly earrings), as this will chip and reveal the flimsy nature of your bauble. Stick with rhinestones and layered chains and your budget buy won’t be obvious. Always, always avoid anything feathered (the chemically dyed bristles clump and become a dead giveaway) and any single-chain necklaces with a single charm. For some reason, F21 always makes the charms bigger than they should be, and it looks awkward.

Agree? Disagree? Got a tip of your own to share? Let us know in the comments!

All photographs by Sarah Zlotnick.

Sarah is the Editor-in-Chief of Washingtonian Bride & Groom, and writes about weddings, fashion, and shopping. Her work has also appeared in Refinery29, Bethesda Magazine, and Washington City Paper, among others. She is a Georgetown University graduate, lives in Columbia Heights, and you can find her on Instagram at @washbridegroom and @sarahzlot.