According to Covadonga O'Shea, Ortega's biographer, his early life was very humble. His father earned 300 pesetas per month — a meagre salary even for post-war Spain, where the economy took a long time to recover from the 1930s civil war. To put that in context, a dozen eggs in Spain would have cost Ortega's father about a tenth of his monthly income.
In a video, O'Shea tells an illuminating anecdote from Ortega's childhood: "They went to buy some goods at the grocery, he heard someone that told his mother... they couldn't keep giving her credit to buy the food that she needed for the family dinner that evening."
Ortega left school shortly after, at the age of 13 or 14 and went to work as a messenger boy in a shop.
O'Shea says that experience was formative for Ortega: "This horrible moment in which he realised the dramatic situation of poverty would never happen again to his family."
She adds: “The consequence of that slap on the face he suffered when still he was a very young boy has been the creation of one of the most important Spanish enterprises... with a global presence in most of the world.”
Zara was founded in 1975, when Ortega was nearly 40 years old, in La Coruna.
According to fashion author Mark Tungate, Zara wasn't the first choice for a name for the company:
Originally the store was to be called Zorba, after the character played by Ortega's favourite actor, Anthony Quinn, in the film Zorba the Greek. He couldn't obtain permission to use the name, so he played with the letters until he arrived at Zara, which sounded feminine and exotic (the name should be pronounced the Spanish way: 'Thara'.)
Armancio Ortega (upper) and one in his 2000 Zara Shops (source: internet)
Inditex was set up as a parent company to cope with rapid expansion 10 years later, and by 1989 the company had launched in Portugal. It hit Paris and London in the decade after that.
Tungate goes on to explain the appeal Zara, which sells high-street styles at more affordable prices.
The secret to Zara's appeal is that, although shopping there is cheap, it doesn't feel cheap. The stores are large, swish and centrally located. The clothes are given room to breathe and usually — unless it's a Saturday afternoon during the sales — so are the customers. And then there are the clothes themselves. Zara is renowned for whisking budget interpretations of catwalk styles into its stores with break-taking speed. A designer dress photographed on a model during fashion week won't arrive in a department store for months — but something like it can be spotted hanging in Zara in a couple of weeks. This infuriates the designers, but delights customers who can't stretch to the originals — or no longer see the point of trying.
Zara has been repeatedly praised for its inter-connected supply chains. The Economist called Zara "perhaps the most famous example of supply chain agility." Designers, store managers, and Inditex factories (which do most of their work in Spain) operate like a well-oiled mechanism.
The company spends little to nothing on advertising. According to High Point University economics professor Stephanie Crofton, Inditex spends just 0.3% of revenues on advertising, against 3.5% to 5% for other major retailers, allowing the clothes to simply speak to themselves.
It's a winning model — Zara now has 2,000 stores in 88 countries.
The boom years
Zara has now been around for four decades, but the majority of Ortega's wealth has been built up over the last 10 years, during which time the share price of Inditex exploded.
Zara and its parent company have outperformed through even the financial crisis and during a period in which the Spanish economy was plunged into a very deep recession.
The company's share price has risen by 570% in the last 10 years, and since Ortega owns 59% of the shares, his net worth has surged upwards too.
Despite his success, Oretga has deliberately kept a low profile. Until recently there were extremely few pictures of him, and he has turned down media interviews for decades.
O'Shea believes one reason Ortega shuns the media spotlight is because he is modest — he doesn't want to take the sole credit for Zara and Inditex, which he thinks are a joint effort of the company as a whole.
He stood down as Zara's chairman in June 2011, at the age of 75.
His daughter, Sandra Ortega Mera, is Spain's richest woman, inheriting a 7% share in the company her father founded when her mother died.