The concept is simple: reverse-engineer luxury collections revealed on international catwalks, translate them into cheap, less extravagant versions, ship them lightning-fast. The result? A multi-billion dollar empire of mac-fashion, built on chic democracy and creative rip-off; also known as ZARA. By EMILIE GAMBADE.
Born in 1975 in the little town of A Coruña in Spain, ZARA is a fashion retail octopus with 1,850 stores worldwide, a growing presence in 85 countries and a CEO that conquered his way to being one of the richest people in the world, with his wealth estimated at $37-billion dollars. What started off as a rather prosaic entrepreneurial success story turned out to be an incredible lesson of retail mastering and copyright frivolity.
If it were not for the cunning, unbeaten and almost overpowering way of bringing high fashion back to the street and nurturing prêt-à-porter addiction into millions of women worldwide, the brainchild of Amancio Ortega would probably still be a store with a Slavic name, in a rather inconspicuous village in the north of Spain.
A boy forced to leave school before he reached fifteen, Ortega is now 76 years old. He began his career in the fashion industry walking through the artists’ door, taking his chance by designing and manufacturing a Shetland pullover, selling a few units to a local clientele; no matter how conservative the product was, the sales kicked off and the rest is his story: Ortega's net worth today is US$37.5 billion.
But what made ZARA a business success and a fashion brand with antennas in every major cities of the world, what set it apart and enabled it to walk through the gloom of recession head up and heels sharpened, its net profit rising 30% last year to €432 million on almost €9 billion? Simple, sort of: it is its unique – at times controversial – supply chain of products. When Louis Vuitton collaborates with Yayoi Kusama, one can expect ZARA’s designers to jump on the Japanese artist’s trademark design and quickly flood stores with dresses covered in polka dots. Daniel Piette, chairman of LVMH Investment Funds, quoted on CNN.com, once described ZARA as “possibly the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world."
Plagiarism doesn’t seem to worry the company; fashion is, after all, quite a permissive bitch.
Zara's retail fairy tale starts at its headquarters and local all-in-one center in A Coruña; their design team dissects trends and digests collections otherwise inaccessible to the public except through the pages of international fashion magazines (that is, if you are not among the very few who can afford Prada, Dior, Proenza Schouler and consorts). The team pares down the runway collections to manufacture only limited numbers of pieces – its interpretation is often impeccable. Collections are snapshots of wearable couture, stripped of any furbelows and excessive frills.
This naked version of high fashion, where form matters more than depth, where sweat, time, creativity and passion haven’t shaped a garment, but were rather invested in preparing it and distributing it to the world, is not intellectual ready-to-wear high-end, but fast-fashion for the masses. At times, and mostly by chance, it may even turn into collectable garments that will make their way to the vintage age, but that is not meant to be its destiny. Mostly, it will end up in the junk fashion trash bin.
ZARA’s stylists not only absorb what is thrown on stage by international designers, abridging garments, morphing bits and pieces into less stratified space; they are also constantly trailing and checking the current state of sales of major international fashion houses; watching what sells and what doesn’t helps them shape and direct their own production. It’s simple, clever and completely Machiavellian.
Yet ripping off other people’s designs and tracking their sales’ beats is not the only sneaky approach to fashion that ZARA is joyfully and successfully applying. Ready-to-wear and Haute Couture are desirable because they often offer very limited pieces, magisterial collections glorified by luxurious fabrics, falling like silk gloves on a woman’s body; a garment walks on the runways, is displayed in select salons, and bought by an élite clientele who wants to satisfy immediately its hunger for fashion; instantaneity is the rule, there is no tomorrow in the merciless world of the fashionables.
Today, exclusivity is not reserved to Haute Couture. ZARA replicates ‘it’s limited, therefore it’s exclusive’ collections with a retail twist; garments flying out of their factories, no matter how successful the sales or how popular they are, are never reproduced; if you want it, buy it, because soon it’ll be gone.
Chris Viljoen, fashion editor for Sarie magazine, who was part of the ‘launch group’ that went to A Coruña before ZARA hit our shores, says, “They want you to come to the store and want [a garment] because it might not be there tomorrow; they make lot of ranges that are very short; they design and produce eight for every store; if you go to the store and if you don’t buy it now, it might not be there tomorrow; they are creating a bunch of fashion magnets around the world, who need to go to the store and get their ‘fix’ now; if you love those trousers, you need to buy them now because tomorrow it’s going to be gone.”
The shorter the ranges, the faster the production and the distribution. ZARA’s supply chain is a well-oiled machine, a full circle of retail, with a starting point in Spain. Viljoen remembers, “the design center decides to do a jacket; few ladies [sitting] next to the designers make the pattern; they send it electronically to the factory; the pattern is perfect when it leaves the design floor. The factory produces it; two weeks later, it’s in the store. (…) When something is packed, it is steamed, ready, all the shop assistants do is unpack the garments and put it on the floor. They only steamed in extreme situations; they told us [that] from inception of the garment to the store, it is two weeks. This is crazy.’
Add to the formula the stores that are merchandised and replenished twice a week, whose managers report daily to the designers at headquarters, and you have the perfect recipe for fashion addiction in the form of retail; a woman’s dream – a haven of apparently unique and exclusive clothes for a next-to-reasonable price, and shops that never carry an air of déjà-vu.
Is this going to impact South African stores? Surely it will. From Woolworths, Truworths, Edgars to the Platinum Group, local retailers, who used to shop their ideas on the shelves of international brands like ZARA, Top Shop or Abercrombie & Fitch, will now be forced to dig their creativity somewhere else and pump up their game and supply chain with a tote bag filled of energy and inventiveness.
“It is going to be a complete different concept now. From idea conception to the store, in South Africa, it means three to six months. They go overseas, they buy samples from ZARA, they come back, brief their suppliers, send the patterns to China. The whole process is laborious… now, a lot of them are realising they have to edit [ranges] for their consumers. They are all being hysterical, big time,” says Viljoen, who also consults for various brands.
This 'hysteria' might raise the bar and finally add onto South African rails and hangers ranges that are innovative and desirable. It might also force local retailers to have windows that are both visually attractive and fresh, away from pseudo-iconic white orchids dying of heat and other repetitive shop-window props. But what will shape South African retail space is its ability to understand its clientele in the global world and support the development of local talents and factories.
Hopefully, it will also push retailers to wake up from a long era of comfortable yet boring fashion repetitions purely based on sales sheets; it will influence them to create trends and move forward because, yes, fashion does fade, as Coco Chanel once said.
Fast-fashion is not couture. It cannot pretend to design unique pieces meant to last a lifetime, passing from one generation of women to the next, prints of stylish eras; but it can reinvent itself constantly and offer desirable ranges. Style, after all, is not the prerogative of the rich. Zara proves that every day. DM
Photo: Labels are seen on clothes at a Zara store in Madrid September 19, 2012. REUTERS/Susana Vera.