From his workshop in the rugged northwestern region of Galicia, Ortega has conquered the world with his Inditex retail empire and its flagship Zara brand.
Ortega, 76, has wealth now estimated at $57 billion (44 billion euros), rocketing from $37.5 billion a year ago, according to Forbes. Only the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim and US tech titan Bill Gates rank above him on the mazazine’s list.
Ortega left school at 13 to work as a salesman in a shirt store in the city of La Coruna. Four years later, he set up his own business, initially handling wholesale transactions.
He opened his first Zara boutique in 1975, in La Coruna. More branches followed, and he expanded into Portugal in 1988, the United States in 1989 and France in 1990.
Now almost 40 years later, Zara has become the emblem of his low-cost fashion empire.
Inditex is the largest fashion retailer in the world. Aside from Zara, its brands include the youth-oriented label Bershka and the upmarket brand Massimo Dutti.
The group has ridden out the economic crisis and in December it reported that net profit in the period from January to October had surged by an annualised 27 percent to 1.655 billion euros ($2.1 billion).
“Internationalised companies are suffering much less than others in the crisis, and Inditex is about the most internationalised there is,” Juan Ramis, a professor at Spanish business school ESADE, told AFP.
It has 6,000 stores in 86 countries.
The company’s success has been attributed to a rapid turnover, with new designs constantly being dispatched to stores.
“It can get new collections in its shops approximately every two weeks,” Ramis said.
“The customers come back often to the store because they know the stock is constantly changing.”
Transport costs during production are kept low as more than half of the goods are produced in Europe and neighbouring Morocco.
In 2011 Ortega gave up his post as chairman of Inditex to close aid Pablo Isla, but remains the main shareholder and retains a central role in the management.
“Ortega works directly with people in the company’s operations. He is in the production plants,” Ramis said.
“Being so close to the ground he takes better decisions than others who stay in their office. As well as being a brilliant and intelligent person, he is better at taking decisions than others.”
Married twice and the father of three children, Ortega is said to eat often in the staff canteen.
But to most Spaniards he is a mystery.
He never gives interviews and despite his extreme wealth and omnipresent clothing stores, Spanish media have been hard put to dig up any stories about him.
For years, few even knew what he looked like. Ortega agreed to pose for an official photo only once when the company was officially listed on the stock market in 2001.
“In the street, I only want to be recognised by my family, my friends and people I work with,” he told Covadonga O’Shea, one journalist who did get close to him and wrote his biography.
Inditex shook up the clothing world and its business model has been taught in business schools.
“The day Ortega is no longer there, I think the company will start to have limits and doubts,” Ramis said.