HE’S the world’s sixth-richest person, with an eight-brand empire of 7,200 clothing shops spread across 93 countries.
There isn’t a lot that Zara-founder Amancio Ortega hasn’t conquered.
But internet surfers with too much lockdown time on their hands have noticed a certain prominent left-wing politician reclining on a bench at Spain’s Congress of Deputies in a black Zara jacket – a brand Ortega founded in 1975.
That man is Pablo Iglesias, the second deputy prime minister and outspoken leader of the anti-establishment Podemos party.
Pablo Iglesias, with fewer clean shirts than a badger, and whom centre-right columnists love to refer to as ‘scruffy’.
It’s also the same man who, months ago, criticised Ortega’s donations to the Spanish health system saying: “Spain is not a banana republic nor a dictatorship that depends on some old toff.”
Then in March, Minister of Equality Irene Montero – Iglesias’ wife – was also unmasked trying to hide the label on her Stradivarius bag beneath an Instagram emoticon.
DID YOU KNOW?
Aside from its flagship store, Zara, Inditex also owns Pull and Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Oysho, Stradivarius, Zara Home and Uterqüe.
The company’s success is built upon small runs of clothes, while relying on customer feedback and trend-spotting, to replenish stores with cutting-edge products.
New styles hit the stores within a matter of days, and 60% of manufacturing happens locally to shorten distribution times.
Ortega’s only official biography, written by long-time friend Covadonga O’Shea, carries the legendary story that epitomises Ortega’s business mindset.
“One day I was in a car and at a traffic light when up pulled a vespino, ridden by a kid with a denim jacket full of badges and patches. I liked it. I saw there was something new, genuine, trendy. Still in the car, I called the head of design and detailed what I was seeing. In two weeks, the jackets were in stores and selling like churros.”
Gabriel Rufian, the pro-Catalan-independence politician who accused Ortega of thinking he was ‘batman’ in March, has also been snapped wearing a Zara camel-coloured overcoat this year.
Despite his ‘bad billionaire’ image, overstitched with reports of tax-dodging and east-Asian sweatshops, perhaps Ortega’s incredible contribution to the country’s fight against coronavirus has finally won over his haters?
The 84-year-old textile tycoon began filling the gaps in the COVID-19 battleplan by doing what he does best: making clothes.
Washable, splash-proof, with elasticated sleeves, and in a functional-but-elegant turquoise, the hospital gowns manufactured by Zara have been a lifeline for desperate medical workers.
The first batch of 4,000 was distributed to a hospital in Galicia – Inditex’s homebase – with many thousands more planned after the conglomerate dedicated nine of its 11 Galician factories to strictly PPE production.
It comes after ‘kamikaze’ Galician nurses were featured on the front page of the New York Times on March 30, braving hospitals in homemade protective gear fashioned from bin bags.
While the somewhat red-faced government had to recall 350,000 faulty masks from frontline workers, Ortega has already flown in and distributed three million, along with 1,450 ventilators.
His efficiency is due to a business model built on speed and control.
Amancio Ortega founded his empire on two principles – give the customer what they want; and give it to them as fast as possible. To do that, he has ensured he owns his entire supply line.
The same diligence that means Inditex orders are delivered worldwide within 48 hours has seen urgent medical equipment arriving at its Zaragoza hub like clockwork.
But there is a different side to Amancio Ortega, behind the logistical behemoth.
A side that perhaps explains why UK textile tycoon Philip Green is awaiting the removal of his knighthood over sexual harassment allegations, while Ortega has received 35,000 signatures on a Change.org petition putting him forward for the Premio Princesa de Asturias, Spain’s premier peace prize.
And it’s a side best understood by picking apart the first item of clothing Ortega ever made – a dressing gown.
It wasn’t necessarily the style of the dressing gown that shines a light on his persona – though the Inditex empire is rumoured to have fashion informants plugged into scenes the world over, and restocks its stores twice a week.
No. In 1963, when Ortega created his first fashion distribution network Confecciones GOA, he built it up by answering a massive call for work.
In 1960s La Coruña, thousands of husbands went out to sea to fish, leaving wives at home without a means to win bread.
“The women would do anything for a little money, and they were really good at sewing,” says Xabier R. Blanco, a Galician journalist and co-author of the unofficial biography Amancio Ortega: From Zero to Zara.
The budding tailor began organising sewing cooperatives, mainly producing quilted bathrobes that Ortega distributed under his own business’ name.
‘Zara may change, but the man who built this retail giant will always be, deep down, a small-town hero’, wrote Fortune business magazine, noting the strange hierarchy at Inditex’s headquarters in Arteixo where the world’s sixth-richest person sits at a desk in a corner of a Zara Woman workspace.
One of those women from the 1960s, Mercedes Lopez, has been kept in the family as Inditex’s textile union representative.
Legend places Amancio’s eureka moment back to the 12-year-old boy who watched his mother being denied food on credit at a local shop in the Galician capital of La Coruña.
The shame this youngest of four brothers felt bore in him the determination to fully furnish his family beyond all financial need – and from there, say his supporters, was born a philanthropic destiny.
Comparisons do paint a picture of the largely media-absent Ortega.
For argument’s sake, while Philip Green pays Rod Stewart £750,000 for a 45-minute serenading during a three-day toga party in Cyprus for 200 AirBus-flown guests on his 50th birthday, not a single picture of Amancio Ortega was published anywhere until he was 63.
Green owns a £20 million Gulfstream G550 private jet; Ortega hates flying. Green alternates weekdays between plush apartments in central London and Monaco; Ortega still drinks coffee in the neighbourhood where he grew up, ‘somewhere’ in the 17th-largest city in Spain. While Green is considering the permanent closure of shops in his Arcadia group, Ortega decided not to lay off one single employee in his Spanish workforce of 50,000… and that’s not half the story.
DID YOU KNOW?
Zara’s name was a lucky accident.
Amancio Ortega initially wanted to call his first clothing brand ‘Zorba’ after his and his wife’s favourite film, the Greek-American comedy Zorba the Greek.
It turned out however that a local bar also had used the name.
The tradeoff has paid off, however, as Zorba bears close resemblance to a Spanish insult for ‘bitch’ and generally sounds like a naff cleaning tissue.
Zara, meanwhile, has an exotic resemblance to a well-known name, Sarah, and is easily pronounceable in many of the world’s tongues.
But ever since Inditex put itself at the disposition of Spain’s government, on March 18 there has not been a peep of criticism coming from the Pablo Iglesias front.
Whether that means it’s Zara’s style Iglesias likes, or the business practices of its boss, is unclear.
But the off-hand Twitter observation means Amancio Ortega has at least achieved an incredible dream: from front-line hospital worker to the chambers of governance, a billionaire has, for once, given his nation the shirts off his own back.