Will the arrival of Forever 21 make Sir Philip green with envy?

A hugely successful American clothing chain has arrived in Britain. Topshop and Primark should be worried. Carola Long reports

Any new addition to the retail landscape in a nation of shoppers will cause a ripple, particularly when it comes from the other side of the pond. Yesterday morning, a queue of curious consumers had formed at Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre to welcome the latest US import.

Forever 21 is the fast-fashion giant you've probably never have heard of, but which straddles the world with more than 450 stores in 14 countries. A familiar fixture in America's shopping malls, it has until now resisted dipping a toe in the fiercely competitive waters of the British high street.

When the shutters opened there wasn't so much of a rush through the gleaming glass doors as a calm procession. It was hardly the mayhem that greeted the opening of the first Primark on Oxford Street, but the fact a queue had formed at all said something about our insatiable appetite for cheap clothes.

There may have been nervous glances from inside the neighbouring Topshop, owned by Sir Philip Green. but Forever 21, which will open in London soon, is arriving at a tricky time. The image of clothes at rock-bottom prices has been tarnished by a growing awareness of the impacts of cheap cotton and labour.

Not that the nation's high streets are in the throes of a backlash. This week Primark reported a 35 per cent rise in operating profits and Forever 21's executive vice-president Larry Meyer was bullish: "People want to look good and in the main they like the ability to have new clothes at affordable prices."

As shoppers began exploring the shiny new store, which includes a giant telephone box and union flag mural on one wall (in case shoppers forget where they are), they discovered that affordable meant £45.80 for a suede aviator jacket, £18.80 for a faux leather dress and just £5 for a T-shirt.

The designs are aimed primarily at young women. Jessica, 26, said she liked the "nice décor, good variety and good quality for the price," although teenager Abby said " it's OK, but it's just another shop."

Reactions were less than effusive, but Katherine Rushton, deputy editor of the retail magazine Drapers, doesn't foresee an end to the appeal of cheap clothes. "There is always talk about consumers moving towards investment pieces, but it's often wishful thinking," she said.

And signs in the industry were that Forever 21 has what it takes to make a splash. The market editor of Teen Vogue, Mary Kate Steinmiller said, "Forever 21 is like a treasure box. You could send 20 girls in the store and they would all come out with a week's worth of different outfits and that is what appeals to them, it's like a magazine's fashion closet at their disposal to play with and style."

Forever 21 was launched in 1984 by idiosyncratic Korean-Americans Don Chang and his wife Jin Sook Chang, Christians who print the biblical passage John 3:16 on the bottom of their shopping bags – as a demonstration of their faith rather than a wry joke about shopping as a 21st-century religion.

The store has thrived by offering trend-led pieces, but has flown close to the wind. In 2007, designer Diane von Fürstenberg filed a lawsuit against the chain for copying her dresses, a case she later settled on undisclosed terms. The store has also faced accusations of unfair working practices

As the launch at the Bullring centre came to a close and the shoppers left, two customers at least were convinced by the new name on the high street. Ivy and Tom, both 67, said, "very nice, good quality and reasonable prices."

The American Invaders

Gap

One of the world's biggest speciality retailers with some 3,100 stores and revenues last year of $14.2bn, Gap has a huge presence on the UK high street. It introduced us to the beauty of affordable all-American fashion basics such as khakis, white T-shirts and denim shirts.

Banana Republic

Owned by Gap, this premium high-street label specialises in grown-up clothes and accessories. Its arrival caused much excitement thanks to a gap in the market for smart clothes and workwear items such as tailored trousers and jackets, combined with more feminine pieces.

American Apparel

Initially embraced by the hipsters of Shoreditch for its jeans and T-shirts in rainbow colours, American Apparel is now in financial trouble. The British love of a bargain means that we are reluctant to pay £20 for a T-shirt, even if it is sold by someone in braces, a bow-tie and a retro moustache.

Abercrombie & Fitch

With its topless male models posing on the doorstep of the shop, preppy sportswear label Abercrombie & Fitch has shaken things up on Savile Row, practically becoming a tourist attraction. The branded basics such as hooded sweatshirts and T-shirts are a hit with teenagers.

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