MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Here's the richest man you've never heard of. Amancio Ortega, founder of the Spanish clothing chain Zara. On the Forbes' billionaires list, he's pushed Warren Buffett out of his old spot at number three. Ortega is a recluse, rumored to be a simple dresser, but his fashion empire has come to define an idea we're examining this week, fast fashion. Lauren Frayer traveled to northern Spain to tell his rags-to-riches story.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Amancio Ortega built the world's biggest fashion company in this rainy, impoverished corner of northwest Spain, Galicia, where the 76-year-old has lived since he was a kid. The son of a railway worker, Ortega went to work in a local shirt maker's shop at age 14 to help feed his family. Jose Martinez was Ortega's first colleague. He's 77 now and still works at that same shop, called Gala.
JOSE MARTINEZ: (Through translator) He may be the third-richest man in the world, but for me, he's just a good guy. He came to work in my father's shop in 1951, so we became friends, Amancio and I.
FRAYER: More than 60 years later, this shop still sews shirts upstairs from where they're sold. That's a model Ortega took with him when he opened his first Zara store two blocks from here in 1975. As the company grew, he kept production close to home, in Spain and Portugal, at a time when other chains were moving factories to Asia for cheap labor.
Sooty smokestacks dot the green Galician hills around Zara's headquarters. Inside, machines sort garments for dispatch to stores. Every single Zara garment passes through Spain. And more than half of production is done locally. That allows Zara to be quick: 15 days from design to retail rack, compared to the old industry standard of six months.
JOSE LUIS NUENO: They look at whatever is new. They see what the celebrities and so on are wearing, and put it in their windows very fast.
FRAYER: Jose Luis Nueno studied Zara at the Harvard Business School and now teaches in Spain. He says the key to fast fashion, and to Zara's success, is owning the whole supply chain from factory to retail and dealing in small batches that sell quickly.
NUENO: If I change the merchandise very frequently, then I give you an excuse to come to the store more frequently. I ask always to my students, how times a year do you go to Zara, and I get cases that are absolutely pathological. People that go there once or twice per week, so a hundred times a year.
FRAYER: And Zara does that with zero advertising. Instead it has invested in flagship stores in historic buildings, a converted convent, an art deco cinema and a $324 million store on New York's Fifth Avenue. This year, it will open 500 new stores. Like Ortega, his company, Inditex, which manages Zara and seven other brands, is notoriously secretive. It took me nearly two months to get clearance to visit their office and Ortega declined my request for an interview.
Jesus Echeverria is the Inditex spokesman.
JESUS ECHEVERRIA: Well, our philosophy is that the customer is the one to describe if we do good or bad things. It is not ourselves to explain how good or how bad we are.
FRAYER: At Zara's flagship store in Madrid, customers are doing just that.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I like it because it's not so expensive.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, I like Zara because the quality of the clothes. They are quite good. The only problem is they don't have, like, a size clothes properly for a big-sized woman.
FRAYER: But Zara is famous for adapting. Sales clerks report back to headquarters daily on what customers are saying. For example, if they're asking for that red sweater in blue. I asked the company spokesman, Echeverria, what would happen if I went out on Facebook and to all my friends and all my neighbors and everyone I know and I said, everyone go to Zara tomorrow and ask for that blue jacket in green.
Do you think that that would go back to...
ECHEVERRIA: I'm positive that would turn into green.
FRAYER: Back in Zara's hometown, the elderly shirt maker, Jose Martinez, says he has no regrets about staying put and not joining his friend at Zara when that company took off.
MARTINEZ: (Through translator) It never appealed to me, to leave and start a bigger business. This is my shop and everything I love is right here. I've made it.
FRAYER: He says Amancio Ortega drops by with a bottle of wine each Christmas. Ortega is now worth more than $56 billion and Inditex has about 6,000 stores in 85 countries and counting. Another one is likely to open today. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.
BLOCK: And tomorrow on the program, two radically different approaches to fast fashion, from Forever 21 and American Apparel.