Evangelism in Fashion

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The New York Sun

What would Jesus say about that backless halter minidress?

Forever 21, a popular chain of cheap-chic clothes with stores throughout New York, is literally spreading the Gospel with every sale. When customers leave the shopping emporium with bags full of red cocktail dresses and panties emblazoned with phrases like “Y is for Yummy,” few realize that they are also walking away with a bit of religion.

The owners of the company are devout Christians who print in small type on the bottom of the company’s iconic yellow shopping bags the words: “John 3:16.”

One of the most frequently referenced passages of the Bible, John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

It is frequently hung on banners at football games and prominently displayed at the goal line.

Started by Don Chang and his wife Jin who moved to America from Korea in 1981 and opened a small store in Los Angeles three years later, Forever 21 now operates 360 stores in 40 states plus Canada, Dubai, and Singapore.

New York City is home to six Forever 21 stores in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. The first store in Manhattan opened on 34th Street in 2003, and a second opened at Union Square the next year.

Asked about the inscription, a manager at the sprawling Union Square store waved her hand. “Oh that’s just advertising,” she explained.

A spokeswoman at the Forever 21 headquarters in Los Angeles, Meghan Bryan, later corrected the manager, explaining that the inscription is a “demonstration of the owners’ faith.”

Shoppers interviewed this week said that they had no idea about the John 3:16 on the bottom of their shopping bags.

“Jesus wore clothes,” a 22-year-old from Brooklyn, Jason Schultz, said when informed about the phrase on his bag. He said it didn’t bother him that the company wanted to spread a religious message.

Not so for the rock guitarist Dani Neff, who was out shopping for a black sparkly halter-top to go with a pair of red high-heeled shoes.

“That’s so freaky,” she said. “It kind of annoys me that I’m carrying this around without even knowing it.”

But the discreet placement — and the religious content — of the phrase could be a smart advertising move, according to Pamela Klein at Parsons The New School for Design.

“Religion is hot — it’s in the air. Madonna has a crucifixion in her current show and it’s cool to be interested in God these days,” Ms. Klein said.

As for the location of the phrase, she said that it’s a clever idea because it allows customers to discover it.

“It’s not out where you see it right away…and it becomes personal — you have to actively engage with the bag to read the statement,” she said.

Forever 21 isn’t the only business to wear its religion on its packaging. The popular West Coast burger chain In-NOut Burger, prints John 3:16 on the inside of the bottom rim of their cups. Its hamburger and cheeseburger wrappers point to Revelation 3:20.

With plunging necklines and well above the knee hemlines, the clothing is not what ministers would likely guide their parish to wear. Still, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, William Donohue, said a public dissemination of a gospel message should be cheered on as long as it’s not done in an offensive manner.

“We should give them the benefit of the doubt and cheer them on,” Mr. Donohue said. “While it may not be the most reverential thing to do, by putting John 3:16 on a shopping bag, indeed it smacks of commercialism, it does not rise to the level of insult,” he said.

The New York Sun

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