Browsing the rails at Zara, you might not be aware of this: but there’s an 80-year-old grandfather in northern Spain who helped pick out what you’re taking to the till.
Amancio Ortega stepped down as chief executive at Zara’s owner, Inditex, five years ago.
But he didn’t give up work. Not at all.
Even this week, when the company’s rising share price made him the richest man in the world for two days, he wasn’t ready to retire.
Every day he still makes the 10km journey from his town centre house to the Inditex headquarters, based just outside the coastal town of A Coruna where he first launched the Zara brand.
Sometimes he sits down with the Zara Woman design team and they kick around ideas for the coming weeks and months – the new layout for a store, a new design for the upcoming winter collection. And if Mr Ortega has a hunch, they listen. After all, he has 60 years’ experience in fashion retail, built up from humble beginnings.
According to Forbes magazine, experts in estimating the bank balances of the world’s wealthiest, Mr Ortega’s fortune overtook that of Microsoft founder Bill Gates on Wednesday and Thursday this week, before fluctuating share prices pushed it back into second place.
This was not Mr Ortega’s first time at the top of the tree. In October 2015, he was the world’s wealthiest man for a few hours. It was hailed as a milestone in Spain.
Yet compared to the world’s other richest people, he has chosen to keep a low profile, avoiding interviews and media appearances whenever possible.
The son of a railway worker, he was born in 1936, just before the outbreak of Spain’s civil war. The family struggled to make ends meet, which made a lasting impression on him as a boy.
“One day [he and] his mother went to pick up some groceries,” according to Covadonga O’Shea, author of a biography of the Zara founder.
“From below the counter, he heard someone tell his mother, ‘Senora… we can’t give you any more credit.'”
Ms O’Shea, launching her book in 2012, said Mr Ortega still felt shame at the family’s inability to pay.
“When Amancio was telling me this, he was terribly emotional. And he said to me: ‘I was deeply hurt and humiliated.'”
He vowed never to let his family suffer poverty again, left school, and went to work in a shirt shop.
He gradually gathered further experience with other retailers and by the early 1960s was ready to set up in business with members of his family and his future wife, Rosalia Mera. They launched first a textile manufacturing company, then later, the Zara brand.