The thumping Le Tigre/50 Cent mash-ups may scare you off, or maybe the armies of 13-year-olds in spaghetti strap tanks in January and too much eye makeup. Or maybe even the racks and racks of barely there, polyester-and-rayon-blend club attire.
But trust me: you can find some great stuff at Forever 21. It's just a matter of sifting through the five-inch pleather waist belts and two-inch hot pink cotton and spandex miniskirts. Much of their merchandise, which seems to be rotated almost weekly, is modeled after designer items: that breezy $165 tunic from Anthropologie you just bought? Its twin is probably at your local Forever 21 right now, for $21.99. That $1325 Missoni wrap dress? There, too. Seriously. It's there. It's probably just hiding behind some sequined polyester "satin" thing—that you can buy at Bebe for a lot more. (Though it's not so fun when you've already purchased said designer item—kind of takes the fun out of that $288 Marc Jacobs sweater.)
The trick to it? Mix and match your $28 Forever 21 stuff with the $280 high-end stuff. No one will be able to tell—as long as you know what you're doing, at least. Sure, you get what you pay for, and it's usually trendy, disposable stuff you'll hate a season or two later, but the low prices allow for experimentation and variation. (And yes, the whole sweatshop labor thing has been settled, so you can shop there again.) This girl's red and black tunic is a fun spin on the massive androgyny/grunge plaid reemergence for fall/winter 2006-2007. The runways of everyone from Luella, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenburg featured endless amounts of this classic—but with slightly more feminine variations in the forms of ruffles, waist coats and tunics.
And while this same tunic (okay, maybe the plaid's striping was navy and not black) was available at Urban Outfitters for a little under $60, you can find this nearly identical alternative at Forever 21 for $19.99. With a cute belt, jeans and flats, this girl has a flattering outfit that looks like it cost a lot more than it really did—all thanks to stores like Forever 21, H&M, MNG and Zara.
Just avoid anything with glitter, anything made of a "satin"-like material, or anything a regular at V2O or Sutra would wear. Unless you're into that sort of thing.