Go Inside Zara's Locked Down Headquarters in Spain

As Zara launches e-commerce here, Leah McLaren visits the game-changing chain's secretive HQ to untangle the complex issues behind our wardrobe's secret weapon

Some of Zara's 200 designers at work in the company's goliath headquarters

Some of Zara’s 200 designers at work in the company’s goliath headquarters

La Coruña, a pretty little port city on the rainy tip of northern Spain, is a company town. While the city’s historic core is cupped around a stretch of wind-whipped beach and ragged Atlantic swells, its real heart is a 20-minute drive down the coast. Here, on the city’s outskirts, an enormous curving glass building rises up from acres of smooth green lawn. It could be the home of a James Bond super villain or a space-age cult. Instead, it is the international headquarters of Inditex Group, the parent company of Zara, and the biggest fashion retail empire in the world.

Jesús Echevarría Hernández, chief communications officer of Inditex Group, is a mild-mannered man of medium height in a non-descript navy suit and wire frame spectacles. His look is less “fashion emperor” than “suburban accountant,” and it’s the former label that’s appropriate. Echevarría is entrusted with the delicate task of talking to the media, and he meets me on the first day of what turns out to be a pleasant, if highly controlled and carefully orchestrated, press tour of Zara’s global headquarters.

The Inditex headquarters in La Coruña, Spain

The Inditex headquarters in La Coruña, Spain

“Welcome to the death coast!” he says brightly, on entering the boardroom, then explains brieflfly how the region got its nickname— Costa da Morte—from the litany of shipwrecks on its rocky coast. The name for the region is “Fisterra” (world’s end) which descends from a pre-Roman legend that the shore of La Coruña was the edge of the earth as we know it.

The beach nearby on La Coruña's rocky shore; Photo by Getty Images

The beach nearby on La Coruña’s rocky shore; Photo by Getty Images

This parochial and strangely isolated setting has served Zara’s purposes well since its inception as a small womenswear manufacturer in 1963. The company’s founder, Amancio Ortega Gaona, opened his first store on the town’s main drag in 1975. He called it “Zorba” after Zorba the Greek, a popular movie at the time. But there was a bar with the same name whose owner implored him to change it. Ortega rearranged the letters on his sign to read “Zara”—and fashion history was made.

According to Forbes magazine, Ortega is now the third richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $57 billion. Like the Queen of England, he has never given an interview. Unlike the Queen, he keeps an extremely low profile, doesn’t attend corporate events and refuses to have his photo taken. Though he stepped down as chairman in 2011, the 77-year-old is said to remain intimately involved in the company. According to one employee, he is still in the office every day, “working, working, always working.” In fact, one of the communications officers told me after our tour of the offices that we had walked right by him and taken no notice.

Echevarría, on the other hand, is forthcoming and at ease with the public despite his company’s rather cultish nature. Zara, he explains, “started as something peculiar and innocent and grew into something large.” This is an understatement. With 1,751 stores worldwide (and counting) Zara is enormous and its parent company, the Inditex Group, also owns smaller labels Zara Home, Massimo Dutti, Oysho, Uterqüe, Stradivarius, Bershka and Pull & Bear.

In the late ’90s, Zara expanded to become a major international chain. A few years later, it hit upon the strategy that sets it apart: turnaround time. It launches around 11,000 new designs a year compared to 2,000-4,000 from its key competitors like Topshop and H&M. According to Echevarría, Zara needs just 2 to 3 weeks to design, manufacture and stock a brand new item in stores. This massive acceleration of the trend cycle–traditionally a six month process from sketch to shop–has not just made Inditex buckets of money, it’s revolutionized the fashion world as we know it. LVMH investment funds chairman Daniel Piette once called Zara “possibly the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world.” While most big fashion labels pour millions each year into advertising campaigns featuring top models, stylists and photographers, Zara has no advertising budget to speak of. It has a policy of taking out single full page ads in local newspapers and fashion magazines to announce the opening of a new store—or, more recently in Canada, its e-commerce launch—but this, one staffer explains, is “more like a public service announcement.” The reasoning? Echevarría says that Zara’s trend cycle is so fast most media outlets simply can’t keep up. “We don’t publish photographs of our clothes in magazines because by the time the ads are out, the clothes you see will no longer be in the stores.”

A look from Spring/Summer 2013

A look from Spring/Summer 2013

At the Zara design offices, it’s possible to see this untraditional model at work. In a headquarters the size of a large airplane hangar—roughly 600,000 square metres of white-tiled floors and matching ceilings—200 designers are hard at work. Their open office space is filled with half-dressed mannequins, piles of clothes, mood boards covered in ripped-out magazine images and bits of textiles dotting the walls. They are young (the average age is 29) and dressed in generic hipster: bearded men in plaid shirts and women with long messy hair in motorcycle jackets. For most, this is their first job out of design school, and they tend to move on after a couple of years to other jobs in bigger cities like Madrid or Barcelona.

Seated directly across from the designers, in an orderly row of gleaming white desks, are the international sales staff. These are the workers who look at the daily retail figures to see what’s selling well (or poorly), where. The sales staff are in constant contact with store managers across the globe (each one represents a specific country, which in most cases they were hired from) and they keep track of the shopping trends as they happen in real time, passing on this information directly to the designers so they can dream up the sort of clothes that customers want.

Zara dress, $60, and shoes, $100, both

Zara dress, $60, and shoes, $100, both

While the traditional fashion house operates creatively top-down—the designer instructs the customer what is “fashionable”— Zara prides itself on a more grass-roots model. “We find out what the customer wants and then we make it,” explains Mercedes Domecq, a Zara PR rep. “Trends happen organically. If people are demanding flowers, we give them flowers.”

This is the theory, at any rate. Zara also has a reputation as a fashion “imitator,” meaning it’s well-known for its knockoffs of runway looks. Looking around the mock shop at Inditex HQ, many recent designer trends are on display, from bright ’60s-style block prints to leather overalls. Did all this “inspiration” come directly from customer feedback? It seems unlikely. (While Zara executives claim the floor staff in their shops are trained to ask what customers think of their garments and report back, I can say from personal experience all my dealings with Zara shop assistants have been harried at best.)

Occasionally, other labels have attempted to sue, but international fashion copyright law has proved fairly weak when tested in the courts. Last year, the French shoe designer Christian Louboutin took Inditex to court, claiming Zara copied its famous red soles. It lost when a French court found its trademark registration was too vague. Moreover, it was unable to prove there was a risk customers would confuse a Louboutin platform spike with a Zara yo-yo pump–though it must be said the two designs in question were nearly identical. Zara, of course, rejects any insinuation that its designers are copycats–though it does go to great lengths to keep them anonymous. We were not allowed one-on-one interviews with any designers or staff members during our press tour. When asked if Zara has a policy of looking to high fashion for inspiration, Domecq bridles slightly. “No, not at all,” she said firmly, then back-tracked slightly when pressed. “OK, at the beginning, if Saint Laurent or Chanel are doing jeans, then we’re going to do jeans, of course. But that’s just normal.”

The truth is, it has become “just normal” for fast fashion outlets like Topshop, H&M and the like to turn around affordable versions of the runway trends; the difference with Zara specifically, and Inditex in general, is that they are doing it at such high volume. It’s estimated that Inditex produces 840 million garments a year, much of it for the Asian market. While Zara has 22 stores in Canada and 45 in the U.S., it has 138 in China, with plans for more. The company’s overall numbers are staggering. Sales are currently at 15.9 billion euros a year and annual profits have risen to nearly 2.4 billion euros. It has well over 120,000 employees—a number that could likely double in the next year with the Asian expansion. Zara is now also offering online shopping in 22 countries (including Canada) and their online office has shift workers around the clock. The day we visit, there is a never-ending photo shoot taking place with models exhibiting the endlessly updating supply of new clothes. A computer screen wall projection shows exactly how many people are on right now (10,947) and in which countries.

Part of Zara’s genius is that, despite the scale of operations, their production schedule is remarkably nimble. All distribution and 60 percent of manufacturing takes place in La Coruña and proximity countries such as Portugal and Morocco, although some garments are made in the Far East or South America (where the company has faced accusations of poor labour practises). They have a policy of “mass uniqueness,” which gives consumers some assurance that if you buy a cocktail dress at your local Zara, three other women at the party won’t be wearing it unless they happened to go shopping in that particular store, on that particular day. If a piece sells well, Zara doesn’t order a million copies; instead they analyze why it worked and try to exploit the trend further, with similar but slightly different versions of that garment. Maybe it’s a colour trend (during my tour, the design room was bursting with canary yellow) or a particular textile (oriental prints abounded). In this way, the label avoids saturating their own market with one particular look. It also means—take heed!—if you see something you like at Zara you’d better buy it now because it probably won’t be there next week. This, combined with bargain pricing, has radically altered the way women think about fashion. Because of Zara, most of our wardrobes no longer revolve around “key pieces,” but a constantly updated flow of new looks.

While all of this is very exciting for fashion addicts, it’s also bad news for the environment. Zara is conscious about the unsustainability of its mass fashion model, of course. When I ask Escheverría about the environmental issue, he breaks into a broad smile. ‘I’m so glad you asked!” he says, and immediately launches into a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation on the company’s environmental policies, which include in-store energy conservation, biodegradable plastic bags, recycled alarm tags and hangers as well as solar panels and wind turbines in their European manufacturing centre.

Of course, it doesn’t matter how energy efficient your light bulbs are when you’re selling billions of essentially disposable garments to Asia and beyond. But Zara is a monolith that’s programmed to expand, and expand it will, until we stop wanting affordable, fashionable clothes–which is not, let’s face it, likely to happen anytime soon.

Even the most thoughtful consumers among us find Zara hard to resist. I certainly do. After several days of touring their factories and contemplating their monolithic and ecologically troubling business model, I found myself with a free afternoon in Barcelona and what did I do? Ran straight to one of the city’s nine Zara outlets to do “research” and ended up buying two dresses, one handbag and a new summer wardrobe for my baby. I justified it by reassuring myself the Spanish stores are famously cheaper and better stocked, but the truth was I simply couldn’t stop myself. I mean, 30 euros for a Gatsby-esque lace summer dress that’s perfect for a July wedding I’m attending? It was so on trend, so cheap, so exquisitely of the moment I’d have been insane not to buy it.

Zara, for its part, says it didn’t invent the mass market, it just learned to exploit people’s desire for trendy clothes in a different way. “We didn’t convince people to buy more,” says Echevarría, “There was just a bigger gap between ‘clothes’ and ‘fashion.’”

As I walked out of the store, I was flooded with smugness regarding all of the money I had saved, almost as if Zara was paying me and not the other way around. That feeling, perhaps more than clothes, is what Zara sells best.