Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
If you grew up in the suburbs, your adolescent life likely revolved around the mall. You hung out with your friends at the food court, you went on dates at the adjoining movie theater, and you did all of your shopping—back-to-school, homecoming, prom—at the chain stores that lined the fluorescent-lit walkways.
Fast forward a couple decades though, and few of the retailers that anchored the malls of our youth are still standing. Fashion Bug? Dead. Contempo Casuals? Defunct. Casual Corner? Gone. (The 2000s were not kind to casually-named clothing stores.) One by one, they've gone the way of bankruptcy and buy-outs, not unlike many malls themselves.
The significance these chains had on the retail industry, not to mention personal style in suburbia, is pretty remarkable, so let's take a look back at all of the once-iconic chains that have since perished. (At least we can find comfort in the fact that Cinnabon's still in business?)
The coolest of all the '90s mall chains, Contempo got a lot of love from Sassy, Clueless, and the era's rad band chicks. (According to the June 1997 issue of Spin, Shirley Manson once wore a Contempo Casuals jacket to the Grammys.)
They mostly sold their own private-label merchandise—lots of sunflower printed pieces and velvet minidresses and other things that wouldn't look out of place on NastyGal. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times published a story about what teenagers were purchasing during the holiday season, and this gem about Contempo was included: "Young teens were buying denim jackets and oversize denim jeans in bright colors, while the older set was sliding into tight velour and spandex dresses topped with black leather motorcycle jackets." In other words, had they brand stuck around, it would still be totally relevant today.
In 1995, Wet Seal snatched up the remaining 237 Contempo Casuals stores from the Neiman Marcus Group (yes, Neiman); in 2001, the stores were converted to Wet Seals, of which there are currently 532 locations. Though it's technically gone now, the brand will live on forever on eBay and on Cher Horowitz.
Founded in the '60s, Fashion Bug was retail holding company Charming Shoppes' biggest brand. It sold budget-friendly clothes while also making a valiant attempt at being trendy. However, since this was way before the fast-fashion boom of the aughts, brands weren't able to churn out of-the-moment collections at the frequency and price points they're able to now. As such, Fashion Bug was more along the lines of Burlington Coat Factory than H&M.
Things started to get shaky in the mid-'90s, but they still had 1,000 stores in 2006; five years later, there were just 660. In 2012, Charming Shoppes was bought out by Ascena Retail Group, owner of Dressbarn, closing all remaining Fashion Bug stores in an effort to focus on the real jewel in the Charming Shoppes portfolio: Lane Bryant. When it was announced that the chain would shutter all of its locations, a devastated shopper created a Change.org petition ("From classy work clothes to pajamas, Fashion Bug has exactly what we need for a reasonable price") that drew 1,387 signatures. Now their website redirects to an error page with the address fashionbug.lanebryant.com.
Casual Corner and Petite Sophisticate
Casual Corner was founded in Connecticut in 1950 and—along with its smaller-sized sister brand—grew into a mall powerhouse with 525 locations. Both stores sold the kinds of pieces women purchased when they had an interview for an internship or landed their first job. (It was also where all the girls on homecoming court got their suits, at least in my Midwest town.)
In 2001, then-parent company Retail Brand Alliance bought Brooks Brothers, which proved to be the beginning of the end for the mall faves. By 2005, they were sold to a liquidator so the holding company could prioritize the higher-end Brooks Brothers. In a weird twist of retail fate, Charming Shoppes took on the leftover leases and moved Lane Bryants into the former Casual Corner and Petite Sophisticate locations.
Photo: Getty Images
In 1983, a college professor in Texas decided to open Gadzooks when his sons couldn't find cool clothes to wear. He believed labels mattered to teens, so instead of selling his own Gadzooks-branded merch, he carried XOXO, Calvin Klein, Dr. Martens, and Oakley. In 1994, Mossimo—which was actually pretty cool before it became a Target label in 2000—made up a big chunk of inventory, as did No Fear. And unlike most mall stores, Gadzooks catered to both men and women.
The company had 183 stores in 1995. By 2001, they'd rapidly expanded to 408 locations...and three years later, they filed for bankruptcy. This happened shortly after they attempted to rebrand themselves by eliminating their dude department—an interesting move, considering menswear accounted for a larger percentage of sales than womenswear during much of the company's run. In 2005, current teen retail powerhouse Forever 21 acquired Gadzooks, taking over the leases of 150 locations.
Samuel Lerner founded Lerner Shops (later known as Lerner Stores) all the way back in 1918. Some 67 years later, The Limited purchased the chain, acquiring all 796 stores. This was just the first big change: In 1992, the name changed to Lerner New York, and in 1995, it was reformatted as New York & Company, a name it still operates under today. Whew.
Throughout many of the brand's iterations, it remained a go-to retailer for women who wore pastel polyester suits with color-coordinated pumps. In addition to their mall locations, Lerner had a big catalog business, too. In fact, the mail-order company actually kept the Lerner name even after the brick-and-mortar locations started going by New York & Company, but in 2006, that part of the business was purchased by another company and renamed once again, this time as Metrostyle.
Despite humble beginnings—it started out as one lone boutique in Atlanta in 1968—trendy teen retailer Merry-Go-Round expanded quickly in the '90s, eventually ballooning to 1,500 stores nationwide. It turned out to be too much, too soon. By January of 1994, the company filed for bankruptcy. Months later, it closed all 1,500 of those locations, making it one of the largest retail bankruptcies in history.
Not surprisingly, more interesting than the demise is the man behind it. The company was founded by a former traveling clothing salesman who went by the nickname of Boogie. After a successful run as the company's CEO, he retreated to Aspen in the early '80s, where he lived on a compound called Merry Go Ranch. Sadly, Merry Go Ranch lived on a lot longer than the store it was named for: In 2006, Fortune ran a story with the headline, "The Man Who Boogied Away a Billion Building a Retail Clothing Empire." That same year, he told the Baltimore Sun, "It's like losing a member of the family; it's depressing. Nothing, I guess, lasts forever." Merry-Go-Round is but a faded memory, but Boogie still operates a diner and clothing store in Aspen.