Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the U.S. Postal Service. I love my November visit to the local post office to pick out stamps for Christmas cards. I love neatly boxing up care packages, then handing them off to my trusty mailman.
But let’s be clear about one thing: I would never–under any circumstances–wear this $12.90 USPS Priority Mail Tube Top. It’s part of Forever 21’s bizarre new capsule collection, made in collaboration with the USPS. Among the garments splashed with USPS iconography are “Express” and “Priority” joggers and cropped tanks, a hooded windbreaker covered in USPS mailing labels, and a belt covered in USPS bar codes.
The USPS chose to license its logos and designs to Forever 21 for this partnership. In an official statement, USPS’s brand marketing executive Chris Karpenko said, “The collaboration will generate royalty revenue for the Postal Service and build brand awareness among a younger audience.”
It’s an understandable impulse, given that the USPS has been in a financial free fall for nearly a decade, losing $3.9 billion in 2018. The volume of mail going through the system has diminished every year since 2006, which many experts attribute to consumers shifting to email. And even though consumers have turned to online shopping, packages make up only 4% of all USPS mail. Millennials and Generation Z, who are Forever 21’s target customers, grew up with the internet, and are driving some of these trends.
Still, the collection is a head-scratcher. For one thing, it is jarring to see a model with Priority Mail and Express labels slapped across her chests or legs. It’s as if she’s about to be shipped off somewhere, and calls to mind unsavory ideas, including mail order brides.
And then there’s the bizarre biking uniform, which features blue bikeshorts and a yellow tank top that has the USPS logo on it. It’s reminiscent of the uniform that Lance Armstrong wore when we was on the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. In 2010, Armstrong and his teammates were accused of defrauding the U.S. government by doping while sponsored, forcing Armstrong to pay $5 million to settle the case. Is the USPS being self-referential to the point of self-parody?
But perhaps it is better not to think too deeply about what the clothes are supposed to say. This is Forever 21, after all. The company is totally indiscriminate about its use of licenses. Right now, the company has clothes featuring Mickey Mouse; Harvard’s logo; AC/DC, Rolling Stones, and Def Leppard album covers; NASA; Nascar; Kodak; Sprite; and Mario Kart. Just to name a few.
The more confusing part of the story is why USPS was willing to partner with Forever 21 in the first place. Last year, Forever 21 posted a loss of almost $40 million, up from $22.5 the year before according to the Los Angeles Business Journal. Karpenko insists that the partnership might make the USPS more popular among “a younger audience,” but there’s some evidence that even young consumers are turning against fast fashion, in the wake of growing awareness that the industry is highly polluting. If you’re trying to lure young people, Forever 21 doesn’t seem like the most judicious place to do it.
But perhaps more importantly, this collaboration feels like a wasted opportunity for the USPS. In the hands of a more thoughtful designer, a fashion partnership could have presented an opportunity to engage with people’s complex feelings about this agency, its ubiquity in America, and the massive brand awareness it carries.
As for postal workers: Karpenko’s statement clarified that they may not wear Forever 21 USPS items instead of their uniforms. “Our employees are welcome to show their postal pride by wearing officially licensed USPS apparel, but they should do so in their free time,” he said. Indeed. A tube top may not be the most practical attire for delivering mail under the harsh conditions spelled out in the Postal Service motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”