As one of the original proponents of the 'fast fashion' concept, Spanish retailer Zara holds an enviable position in the global apparel market. While a handful of competitors - including Mango, H&M and Topshop - have achieved similar degrees of success by emulating the Zara-pioneered business model, others hoping to cash in on the winning formula should instead try to create their own niche, according to Zara expert Professor Jose Nueno.

As one of Spain's leading management consultants, Dr Nueno holds both an academic and commercial stake in the country's apparel retailing industry.

In addition to serving as a professor of marketing at Spanish business college IESE and on the boards of companies including Adolfo Dominguez and Tous, he is one of the foremost authorities on Zara, the flagship chain of world-leading fashion group Inditex.

Dr Nueno's examination of Zara's operations was published in the Harvard Business Review and he is the first person to have filmed the retailer's industrial process for research purposes.

Against the grain
In an address at Industry Forum's annual Best Practice day, held in London earlier this month, Dr Nueno said Zara had become a market leader not by imitating the business practices of other successful retailers, but rather by "being contrarian" to apparel industry norms.

Having recognised at its inception that it had arrived on the scene too late to gain a foothold in the mass-market (or, in the words of Dr Nueno, "cheap and nasty") clothing arena, Zara spent the better part of two decades defining and refining its own 'fast fashion' model.

By taking this 'slow and steady' approach, Zara - and other Spanish retailers who took a similar path, including Cortefiel and Mango - gradually built an infrastructure and business acumen so well defined that its once-dominant mass-market competitors (whose own model had since become outdated) had no hope of ever catching up.

According to Dr Nueno, this method of going against the grain has manifested itself in almost every aspect of Zara's existence.

For instance, the company does not buy market research to aid its decision making process, preferring instead to maintain direct communication between store managers (who themselves have direct communication with customers) and its design team to determine which products are 'hot', and which are 'not'.

Similarly, Zara rarely advertises through traditional media, opting rather to invest about 500 million euros each year in establishing new stores, refurbishing existing outlets and creating new window displays on a fortnightly basis.

"These guys spend a lot on a different type of advertising - the type of advertising people want these days," Dr Nueno explains. "If you re-merchandise the store every week like they do…every time you visit the store it looks like a new store. They create this urge to visit the store."

Other seemingly backward business practices that have seen Zara excel include its near-abolishment of the traditional concept of seasons; and its "constant scouting" for management talent among store sales staff.

It has also eliminated the need for long product supply chains by blurring the distinction between (and developing an in-house approach towards) manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing. As Dr Nueno so aptly puts it: "Sometimes persisting in being wrong makes you continuously successful."

Changing industry model
Today, Zara has a network of 600 stores in 44 countries around the world. Its relatively simple concept - taking the lead from high-end and cutting edge fashions, mass producing similar designs and selling them at mid-market prices - has paved the way for a select few successful followers and a slew of others who wish they hadn't been so slow to react to the trend.

However, while 'fast fashion' is currently riding the crest of a successful wave, it will not be this way forever, as Dr Nueno explains. "The industry model is permanently being questioned, and you should question it all the time. The model that will be useful for this industry in five years is maybe not [Zara's] model."

In Dr Nueno's opinion, the next major apparel retailing trend in the UK and Europe will come from outside the region, with lower-cost manufacturers in the developing world becoming increasingly hip to high street trends and eventually bypassing western retailers to sell directly through their own stores.

"Usually the model that dominates an industry is the model that grows," Dr Nueno reasons.

"The models of retailing that will dominate the future will come from China. [Chinese manufacturers] are going to ask themselves why they have to accept the stupid distribution systems we have in Europe."

Dr Nueno also sees the market moving away from the concept of brands and towards a more faceless apparel offering.

"There are a few strong brands that will have the market and the rest will be unbranded," he predicts. "In the model of the future, in my opinion, brands will be the exception. Generic and discount brands will become the norm."

Setting an example
Whether Zara and its 'fast fashion' counterparts can adapt to these trends - either by teaming with foreign manufacturers or downplaying their brand images - remains to be seen.

Whatever the case, it is clear that the apparel market is an ever-changing cycle and, while some retailers and brands have displayed an ability to survive upheaval, others have not.

By paving its own way into the market and inciting change, rather than embracing it or succumbing to it, Zara has been a resounding success. Most of all, it has set an example that all sector companies should take heed of.

By Chris Veraa.