Delia’s was the canary in the coal mine of teen-girl retail. The iconic 1990s clothing brand first flourished through its ubiquitous catalogs, which put inexpensive, of-the-moment clothes such as babydoll dresses and baggy jeans into the wardrobes of American adolescents. Then, in the 2000s, Delia’s became a physical place: The company opened more than 100 stores in suburban shopping malls, eventually reaching 33 states. By the end of 2014, however, Delia’s was done—bankrupt, with its stores closed and its catalog out of print.
Many of Delia’s mall competitors soon succumbed to similar fates. Wet Seal, Quiksilver, Pacific Sunwear, Aéropostale, The Limited, Rue21, Papaya, Claire’s, and Charlotte Russe have all since filed for bankruptcy protection. Many other retailers have closed stores, changed strategies, or restructured businesses. Earlier this week, after months of speculation, one of teen apparel’s biggest power players joined that ignominious club: Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy. The store plans to close hundreds of locations and cease operations in dozens of countries in an effort to save the business.
There’s no single reason that so many stalwarts of the American mall have fallen on such hard times. Shopping-center foot traffic has been on the decline. Internet commerce is ballooning in popularity. Some mall retailers expanded too quickly and have real-estate and inventory albatrosses around their necks. Some just make stuff people don’t really want. But for teen-focused retailers like Forever 21, whose businesses have sputtered in a time when kids are primed to shop from the first moment they clutch their mother’s smartphone, one miscalculation looms large. Those mall stores helped seal their own fates by underestimating the sophistication and resourcefulness of young people.