Marta Ortega Pérez: the new most powerful woman in fashion

·6-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

She began on the shopfloor of Zara on the Kings’ Road, manning the fitting rooms and tidying the stock. Now - at the age of 37 - she has been named chair of the €90 billion business. But this is no rags to riches story: Marta Ortega Pérez is the daughter of the Spanish tycoon who founded Inditex, the parent company of Zara and other brands such as Massimo Dutti and Pull & Bear.

This week it was announced that Ortega Pérez is to be handed control of the family’s fashion empire. Ortega Pérez is the youngest daughter of Spain’s richest man Amancio Ortega, who co-founded Inditex in 1963. Ortega Pérez has spent 15 years working behind the scenes in various roles at the company but now steps out of her father’s shadow.

Inditex said Ortega Perez’s elevation to the top job - and other changes announced alongside her appointment, including a new CEO - complete a “generational handover process” that started in 2011 when Amancio stepped down as chairman. In a statement, Ortega Pérez vowed to “dedicate my life to building upon my parents’ legacy, looking to the future but learning from the past.”

Marta Ortega with her father Amancio Ortega (AFP via Getty Images)
Marta Ortega with her father Amancio Ortega (AFP via Getty Images)

The whiff of nepotism hangs over Ortega Pérez’s promotion and some investors were vexed by the move. Shares in Inditex dropped after the announcement. Zara and Inditex’s other brands face challenges from cheap startups like China’s Shien, as well as the generational shift to online shopping.

So, is Ortega Pérez up for the job? Ortega Pérez has “lived and breathed this company since my childhood,” she said in a statement, “I have learned from all the great professionals I have worked with over the last 15 years.”

The whiff of nepotism hangs over Ortega Pérez’s promotion

Ortega Pérez began her career with Inditex working on the shop floor of Zara on the King’s Road after graduating from university. “The first week, I thought I was not going to survive,” she told the Wall Street Journal in a rare interview earlier this year. “But then you get kind of addicted to the store. Some people never want to leave. It’s the heart of the company.” She has held various positions within the business since then, though is said to have had no specific title prior to her promotion.

Richard Hyman, a long time retail consultant, said Ortega Pérez’s profile in the industry was “not huge” but this was not unusual given her father. Amancio, 85, is notoriously private — he is said to have never given a press interview and the first public photograph of him only emerged in 1999. This is all the more unusual given his estimated fortune of $75 billion, which makes him the second richest man in Europe, according to Forbes.

Biographers, both official and unofficial, have pieced together his background. Amancio was born on the eve of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the youngest of four children. His father was a railway worker and his mother a maid. Growing up poor, he left school at 14 and found work at a local shirtmaker in La Coruna, northern Spain. In 1963 he set up his own manufacturing business making quilted bathrobes. Then in 1975 he opened his first store to sell the goods he was making directly to consumers. He is said to have settled on the name Zara after finding out his preferred option Zorba was taken.

The first international store was opened in Portugal in 1988 and, by the early Nineties, Zara was in New York and Paris. Today, the company is the largest clothing retailer in the world, with over 6,600 shops and sales of €20.4 billion last year.

Carlos Torretta and Marta Ortega (Getty Images)
Carlos Torretta and Marta Ortega (Getty Images)

Ortega Pérez’s childhood was very different from her father’s. She grew up going to ballet classes and riding horses — she has competed in almost 400 horse riding events, according to the International Federation for Equestrian Sports. The Ortega family built its own stables in La Coruna, where Inditex is still headquartered, in 2000.

Zara has long been renowned for its ability to quickly churn out vast amounts of on-trend items, pioneering ‘fast fashion’. Whereas rivals could take whole seasons to turn around new designs, Zara could do it in less than half the time. That ability was built over decades by Amancio. Hyman, who has toured Inditex’s facilities, said: “I’ve visited many, many retail businesses in my time and I don’t think I’ve ever been as blown away.”

Ortega Pérez is credited with connecting Zara’s vast production and distribution capabilities to the realm of high fashion, serving haute couture looks to shoppers at reasonable prices. She launched premium lines like Zara SRPLS - twice yearly collections of catwalk style pieces - and Charlotte Gainsbourg by Zara. Celebrity stylists and fashion photographers have been enlisted to shoot campaigns for the chain under her watch. “I think it’s important to build bridges between high fashion and high street, between the past and the present, between technology and fashion, between art and functionality,” Ortega Pérez told the Wall Street Journal.

She is a “fangirl” of Valentino, according to one profile, and is a regular at the brand’s shows. Indeed, she married her second husband in a Valentino gown. (Her second husband Carlos Torretta is himself the son of an Argentinian fashion designer.) That ceremony was reportedly attended by Bruce Springsteen’s daughter Jessica and guests were treated to performances by Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum and Coldplay’s Chris Martin.

Despite the glitz, Inditex’s outgoing chairman Pablo Isla described Ortega Pérez as “very humble” to the Wall Street Journal. Hyman said: “They have a very collegiate, non-hierarchical structure. They are reasonably humble.” Amancio is famous for never taking an office, instead working on the factory floor alongside designers. Marta works on a desk just a few yards away.

Hyman says Zara’s incredible track record and the success of Amancio’s retirement from the chair role in 2011 suggest Ortega Pérez’s appointment will go well. “If she’s the anointed successor, it’s clearly been thought out,” he said. “History shows that these are people whose decisions are strictly commercial.”

Baroness Denise Kingsmill, an independent director on Inditex’s board since 2016, said she was “personally delighted” by Ortega Pérez elevation.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“I think it is an excellent development which has been under consideration for some time,” she told the Standard. “Marta is steeped in the culture and business of the company. She brings a youthful approach and a deep understanding of fashion, both of which are at the heart of Inditex.”

Ortega Pérez said: “I’m deeply honoured by the trust that has been placed in me, and enormously excited about the future that we are all about to embark upon together.”

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