Ortega was born in the northwestern Spanish town of Busdongo de Arbas on 28 March 1936. The fashion mogul's background had nothing of the riches that he would go on to make. Ortega was raised by his railway worker father and his housemaid mother. They were so poor that his mother had to ask the local shopkeeper for credit to feed her family on occasion, which was sometimes refused, shaming the young Amancio.
Although he was a well-behaved kid, Ortega left school at just 14 years old so he could earn money to keep the family’s head above water. It gave him a work ethos which he took with him for the rest of his life.
By his mid-20s, Ortega, along with his first wife Rosalía Mera and his siblings, started out by making their own bathrobes and then expanded into lingerie. It wasn’t long before he went on to establish his own factory to begin his now famous journey in fashion. In 1963 Ortega opened his first business and workshop in A Coruña in northwestern Spain called Confecciones GOA. The quaint workshop, which made gowns and dresses, would be the foundation block of his fledgling empire. Within a decade, the staff numbers at the workshop grew to 500.
After making dresses for over a decade, Ortega decided to branch out and open his first Zara shop in 1975 in A Coruña. The store was originally going to be called Zorba, after the Greek god, but the company discovered there was a bar with the same name two streets away. "They had already made the moulds for the letters in the sign, so they just rearranged them to see what they could find. They found Zara," the company's communications director Jesus Echevarría told the New York Times.
The store garnered a reputation for offering quality yet affordable garments. The dictator Francisco Franco died that year, and the new brand embodied the modernity and change that was beginning to sweep across Spain. Ortega came up with a new marketing concept called ‘fast fashion’ where he would refresh the stock in his shop every 48 hours. During this era, it could take months for fashion outlets to refresh their stock, but Ortega changed the game to get new clothes on the rack quicker than ever before.
In a quest to bring all his companies together in one single entity, Ortega founded and launched Inditex in 1985 with his then-wife Rosalia Mera. The company went on to open and manage more than 7,200 stores across 93 markets in the world. In 2017 alone, Inditex generated $25.3 billion (£19.6bn) in revenue and is still seen as a fashion retail powerhouse over 30 years after its launch.
As Zara was performing so well, Ortega wanted to explore other opportunities with his Inditex firm. In 1991, Inditex took on two new fashion brands, Spanish firm Pull&Bear and Lebanese brand Massimo Dutti.
In 2000, Ortega's fashion empire moved into a brand new building in A Coruña. The state-of-the-art headquarters were built in order to adapt to the group's growth. Around the same time stores opened in Andorra, Denmark, Qatar and Austria.
During one of his rare public announcements in the Inditex 2009 annual report, Ortega talked about how his customers have always driven his fashion business model. He stated in the report that “the customer must continue to be our main centre of attention, both in the creation of our fashion collections and in the design of our shops, of our logistical system and of any other activity."
Alongside his many investments in the real estate industry, Amancio Ortega is also the owner of what was once Madrid’s tallest skyscraper, the Torre Picasso. The tower is 515 feet (157m) high over 43 floors. At this moment, the skyscraper is Madrid’s fifth tallest building and the 10th tallest in Spain.
In 2015, Zara opened its 7,000th store in Hawaii and also set up a profit-sharing scheme that would go on to pay out $42.3 million (€37.4m/£32.8m) to 78,000 employees across the company’s stores, factories, brands and subsidiaries across 50 different countries.
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According to Forbes’ 2018 Billionaire List, Ortega is the sixth richest man in the world with a current net worth at the time of writing of $63.4 billion (£49bn). The only people richer than the fashion mogul in 2018 in descending order are Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Bernard Arnault and Mark Zuckerberg. Not bad for a railway worker's son from an impoverished background.
Now meet another billionaire with a huge fashion empire