Inside Zara: A rare look at the inner workings of fashion’s most mysterious megachain
If ever a retail wiz there was, the omnipotent Zara is one because, well, the list is a lengthy one. There’s the dominating presence of its 1,763 stores worldwide, and that’s not including its offspring, Zara Kids and Zara Home. There’s its notoriously media-shy founder, Amancio Ortega, who keeps a low profile despite being the world’s fourth-richest person. And there’s the miraculous way the brand has weathered the recession with record profits and continued expansion, not to mention its disparate cult of loyal followers that includes the Duchess of Cambridge, Garance Doré and the girl next door. And although the brand has made enemies of high-end designers who have accused it of lifting designs directly from runways, the company has yet to be successfully challenged. But none of these achievements can be credited to any advertising smoke and mirrors: Zara doesn’t do splashy billboards or TV spots.
So when I received a rare invitation to visit the retailer’s gated headquarters, I double clicked “yes.” As someone who lacks neither the courage to wear a Balenciaga bra top nor the heart to don Céline’s palazzo pants but perhaps the funds to do so, I was eager to meet my great and powerful fast fashion maker.
When I arrive in Arteixo, an industrial suburb of A Coruña on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, it’s in many ways a kind of Emerald City. The heavy rainfall keeps the grass around Zara’s offices the greenest of greens. I had imagined it to be the Google of the garment industry, complete with vibrant, playful interiors like its spring palette. But, in contrast to the trend turnover it deals in, the offices are remarkably conventional. As I’m led down a long white corridor demarcated by white desks and lit by unforgiving fluorescents, the only touches of technicolour I see are the racks of clothing and pinboards of magazine clippings. Zara’s “Oz” could very well be filmed in black and white.
Function over fashion drives the office layout. On one side are the designers, on the other are sales managers connected to every country, charting what customers are loving and loathing and then sharing that intel across the small divide. They’re all young, stylish and straight-faced. At the other end of the office, the older seamstresses sewing the next collection’s prototypes seem to be having the most fun.
Next, I’m taken across the street to one of Zara’s 11 factories in the area. Here, there’s a little more to feast the eye on. Scores of women in lime-green smocks inspecting dangling rows of hot-pink blazers pop against the monochromatic mechanical backdrop. All of the trendiest pieces are made close to home, in Spain, Portugal, Morocco or Turkey.
The industry standard for production is six months from drawing to delivery, but Zara has whittled that down to two or three weeks. Churning out 840 million garments a year, the industrial complex doesn’t produce scads of any one item, fuelling the buy-now-ism that Zara has become famous for. However, if a style sells like gangbusters—say, the mini-skort of Spring ’13 sported by every style blogger under the sun (and, yes, yours truly)—then it can swiftly be replenished. This proximity paired with responsiveness is the not-so-secret secret to Zara’s success.
In the end, seeing what’s on the other side of the curtain wasn’t much different from when Dorothy discovered that the wizard was just a regular guy from Omaha. I thought that after I uncovered the ordinariness of the machine the cool, inexpensive clothes would lose their lustre, but, set loose to shop on Passeig de Gràcia, where three Zara stores are within minutes of each other, I’m suddenly voracious for new clothes. I swiftly succumb, hauling home a bag full.
Back on home soil, my Zara fever subsides, but every so often I’m overcome by the desire to shop its latest batch of perfectly on-trend threads before the limited run is gone for good (and the new online store makes this frighteningly easy). Because, let’s face it, for those of us with runway dreams and real-life budgets, there’s no place like Zara.