'I am like Don Quixote'
Covadonga O’Shea is one of the most powerful figures in the Spanish fashion industry, a best-selling author and a self-confessed member of Opus Dei. DEIRDRE MCQUILLANmeets her in Madrid
One of the best known and most powerful figures in the Spanish fashion industry Covadonga O’Shea pioneered the country’s best-selling glossy magazine Telva and founded ISEM, a respected fashion business school in Madrid, the first of its kind in Spain. From a well-known family in Vizcaya, her ancestors were Irish soldiers and bankers. She recalled her Irish roots earlier this year when, at the invitation of director Breege O’Donoghue, she opened Primark’s new store outside Madrid, its 26th in Spain.
When we met for dinner at the popular Ten Con Ten restaurant in the upmarket Barrio de Salamanca neighbourhood of Madrid, her arrival was greeted with a flurry of attention and handshakes and she confided that the owner was a former pupil of her school. It was immediately obvious that she is popular and respected, her easy manner with people warm and unselfconscious.
On first-name terms with every fashion designer you can think of, she was the only journalist ever to interview the notoriously publicity shy owner of Zara, Amancio Ortega and her book about the founder of Inditex The Man from Zara went into seven editions when it was published this year and has sold more than 100,000 copies. It was her ninth book.
“I felt I had to write it,” she said. “And I never let myself be put off by his remorseless refusals. I argued that being one of the richest men in the world didn’t explain anything fundamental about him.” She told me that she first met Ortega in 1990 when she was invited to the Inditex headquarters in La Coruna in northwest Spain. Since then she has built up an extraordinarily close relationship with a man whom she describes as a visionary. Many of her students find employment in the company, now the largest in Spain.
“He is like Balenciaga and I can make a connection between them because Balenciaga was as much informed by his times as Ortega is by his.” The book is soon to be launched in the US and she wants to update the next edition to include Zara’s online development and increasing globalisation. “It’s is now in five continents and I’ve been to Shanghai and seen it in Plaza 66 where it is placed in front of the world’s luxury companies.”
A slim, vibrant woman in her late 60s with bright eyes and a quick smile who uses her hands expressively in a very Spanish way, she is a well-known writer, author and self-confessed member of Opus Dei.
“My religion is as natural to me as cooking at home,” she says. “I have never regretted my decision [to join] and nobody influenced me. I was 20 at the University of Navarra [where she was the first to graduate with a degree in philosophy and communications] and decided against all the odds and its bad press”, she told El Mundo. She had been engaged to be married with her trousseau ready “and initialled”, when she decided on another life.
She comes from a well connected, diverse and interesting family. Her sister Paloma is a celebrated pianist and founder of an internationally famous piano competition. Two years ago she was promoted to Marchioness O’Shea by King Juan Carlos for her contribution to the musical culture of the country. Married to billionaire Emilio Botin, president of Bank Santander, Europe’s biggest bank, their daughter Ana Patricia, Spain’s first female banking chief (described by the Financial Times as one of the most powerful women in Europe), is head of Santander in the UK. Their other daughter Carmen is the former wife of the late golfing legend Seve Ballesteros.