Rosalía Mera, who, with her husband, co-founded the Zara fashion range and chain of shops, was Spain’s wealthiest woman – and, according to Forbes magazine, the “wealthiest self-made woman on the planet”, with a fortune estimated at more than $6bn.
“Self-made” because, while other women farther up the Forbes list had inherited their fortunes from dads, husbands or sugar-daddies, Mera had left school at 11 to work as a seamstress – and realised that others were making huge amounts of money from her craft.
She was born on 28 January 1944 in the working-class Matadero suburb of La Coruña, the Galician port city in north-west Spain. Skipping secondary school during the hardships of the mid-1950s, she got work as a seamstress, and sometime sales assistant, at the La Maja clothing shop in her home city.
She was 22 when she met and married Amancio Ortega, who had moved north from Léon as a teenager to Mera’s home city of La Coruña in Spain, because of his father’s job as a railway worker.
Ortega, now the fourth wealthiest man in the world with more than $51bn to his name (he once got into the top three), had been working in a shirtmaker’s shop at the time, and Mera was already selling her homemade clothes from a newly-founded company she had set up called GOA. The two decided to go it on their own. With Spanish women slowly but noticeably asserting their femininity in highly Catholic Spain, still under Franco’s dictatorship, Mera started making lingerie and relatively sexy dressing gowns in the newly-wed couple’s living room in La Coruña. (Galicians call it by its local name, A Coruña, but, largely because of Franco, it has become best-known by the Castilian version, La Coruña).
Mera’s self-created lingerie was a bit shocking at the time, but it went down well with Spanish women, not to mention their menfolk, and it reflected the changes that Spain was going through at the time. It was, perhaps, a minor change – but it was one of many pieces of the jigsaw which would add up to an end to the dictatorship and to a democratic Spain.
Seeing the market potential of their products in a Spain that was aching to become part of the democratic world, Mera and Ortega founded the fashion retail company Zara in 1975 within the holding company Inditex. This would eventually become one of the world’s largest clothing retailers, with brands such as Bershka, Massimo Dutti, Stradivarius and Oysho, more than 6,000 stores in 86 countries and net sales in 2012 of around $21bn.
But it was the spread of the Zara brand and stores, initially in La Coruña, expanding to Portugal in 1988, followed by New York and Paris and eventually London, that put Rosalía Mera and her husband on the global billionaire map. Zara and Inditex are still based in La Coruña, in the municipality of Arteixo.
Divorced from her husband in 1986, Mera wound down her direct interest in Inditex and Zara, although she maintained enough shares to keep her among the wealthiest women in the world as Zara expanded.
Outside of the retail empire she helped to construct, and prompted by her son, Marcos, who suffers from a mental disability, Mera began focusing on humanitarian causes – not least through her Paideia Foundation, which seeks to integrate mentally or physically disabled people into the world by finding them jobs.
She invested in various other causes close to her heart, including a marine fish-farming group and a company that analyses products from the oceans that they believe could lead to cancer treatments. To keep those funds coming in, she was also an investor in London’s Bulgari Hotel.
Thanks to the shareholding she retained in Inditex, and thereby Zara, Mera saw her fortune soar to over $6bn in recent years, particularly as Zara caught on worldwide. Mera was, however, the first to admit that what goes up must come down – and that what’s in today, in fashion, must, by definition, be out tomorrow. Hence, in her later years, she invested mostly in charitable organisations. She left the board of Inditex in 2004, retaining a sharehold of just under seven per cent, giving her enough income to finance her social projects, including a contest for young jazz musicians.
Rosalía Mera suffered a stroke on 14 August while holidaying with her daughter Sandra and her family on the island of Menorca. She was flown by air ambulance to her home city of La Coruña, where she died in the San Rafael hospital the following day.
Rosalía Mera Goyenechea, seamstress, fashion designer and entrepreneur: born La Coruña, Spain 28 January 1944; married Amancio Ortega 1966 (divorced 1986, one son, one daughter); died La Coruña, Spain 15 August 2013.