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Monday, February 25, 2013

Meet Amancio Ortega: The third-richest man in the world -


He built the world's largest fashion empire, #Zara. He's difficult to know, impossible to interview, and incredibly secretive. 

Meet Amancio Ortega: The third-richest man in the world - Fortune Management



Zara founder Amancio Ortega

After Gates and Slim comes Amancio Ortega, who built the world's largest fashion empire, Zara. He's difficult to know, impossible to interview, and incredibly secretive. An exclusive portrait.

By Vivienne Walt, contributor

FORTUNE -- The motorbike roared up to the traffic light in La Coruña in northern Spain and stopped alongside a black Town Car. From inside, the passenger glanced out his window and saw the young biker leaning over the handlebars, jean jacket decorated with appliquéd patches, a throwback to the 1970s. The man in the car, decades older than the biker, zoomed in on the jacket. The old man grabbed his cellphone and, as the story goes, called an aide in his office. His eyes still fixed on the biker, the man described the jacket's stitching, its shape and color, and signed off with a single instruction: "¡Hácedla!" Make it.

The light turned green, the biker pulled away; unbeknown to him, he and his jacket had just played a walk-on role in one of the greatest retail stories of our time.

Amancio Ortega Gaona -- the man inside the car -- is the third-richest man on earth. In this provincial corner of Galicia, on Spain's windswept northwestern coastline, the 76-year-old founder of the Inditex Group has spent years secluded from public view, all while living in the middle of La Coruña, a city of 246,000 people. Among the millions of shoppers who patronize Inditex's flagship brand, Zara, and have made Ortega unfathomably rich, few have even heard his name. Ortega has made sure of that, shunning social appearances and refusing all interview requests (including for this article). Until 1999 no photograph of Ortega had ever been published.

MORE: Will.i.am: Corporate America's hit machine

And yet, a world away from the glitz of Paris, Milan, and New York, Ortega has built a fashion empire that reaches into more than 80 countries. Beginning 40 years ago, Ortega ripped up the business model that had been refined over decades by Europe's fashion houses and replaced it with one of the most brutally fast turnaround schedules the industry had ever attempted. Decades later Zara is the world's biggest fashion retailer.

Ortega built his empire on two basic rules: Give customers what they want, and get it to them faster than anyone else. The twin organizing principles have made the company (and Ortega) into an unlikely iconoclast, more of an optimal supply chain than a traditional retailer. They are also the secret to Inditex's astonishing success. "Very few companies can challenge Inditex at this time. The company is in a race with themselves rather than anything else," says Christodoulos Chaviaras, a retail analyst at Barclays Capital in London. Tadashi Yanai, founder of clothing retailer Uniqlo, has made it his stated goal in life to beat Zara. And last August shares of the fashion company Esprit rose 28% on the day it announced its new CEO, Inditex's former distribution and operations manager.




Humble beginnings: Ortega grew up in a row house in La Coruña, in northern Spain (top); his first job was in retail, at Gala (left), where current owner José Martínez (right) was his friend.

Spain might be suffering through its worst recession in generations, with 24% unemployment and crippling debt, but within Inditex, the crisis might as well be happening on Mars. "They live in a different world," says Modesto Lomba, president of the Spanish Association of Fashion Designers. In December, CEO Pablo Isla announced that revenue was up 17% year on year for the first three quarters of 2012 -- that nine-month sales revenue amounts to $14.6 billion -- and net profits matched 2010's, at $2.71 billion. So far, the growth shows no signs of slowing.

Inditex produced 835,000 garments in 2011. A new Zara store opens every day, on average; Inditex's 6,000th store just launched on London's Oxford Street. There are 46 Zara stores in the U.S., 347 in China, and 1,938 in Spain. Ortega controls more than 59% of the company's shares, and last July he overtook Warren Buffett to become the world's third-richest man, behind Carlos Slim Helú and Bill Gates. The reclusive, enigmatic Spaniard, hunting for ideas from his car window on the streets of his hometown, is now worth about $56 billion.

MORE: Jeff Bezos' fashion foray

If such a fortune seems big, it is even more astonishing when you consider the man himself. The youngest of four children, Ortega was born in Busdongo de Arbas, a hamlet of 60 people in northern Spain, in 1936, just as the Spanish Civil War was erupting. The family scraped by on his father's railway job while his mother worked as a housemaid. When Amancio was a small boy, the family moved to La Coruña. There, home was a row house that abutted the train tracks and that served, as it still does today, as the railway workers' quarters. Amancio might have joined the rail service too, had it not been for one fateful evening when he was just 13. Walking home from his school, he and his mother stopped at a local store, where he stood by as his mother pleaded for credit. "He heard someone say, 'Señora, I cannot give this to you. You have to pay for it,'" says Covadonga O'Shea, a longtime friend of Ortega's who runs a fashion business school at the University of Navarra in Madrid and wrote the sole authorized biography of him, The Man From Zara. "He felt so humiliated, he decided he would never go back to school."

Barely in his teens, Ortega found a job as a shop hand for a local shirtmaker called Gala, which still sits on the same corner in downtown La Coruña. Today the store feels frozen in time: plaid shirts, fishermen's caps, and woolen cardigans. "Can you believe it?" says Xabier R. Blanco, a local journalist who tracks Ortega's career. "They still sell the same stuff, and Amancio is Mr. World." That painful irony is not lost on Gala's owner, José Martínez, 76, who inherited the store from his father. He befriended young Amancio when they were both 14. The boys spent their afternoons folding shirts at Gala and riding bikes around town. Martínez does not relish his current role as counterpoint to his childhood friend. "No one ever comes in here to buy anything," he says. "They just want to know about Amancio."



By 16, Ortega had concluded that the real money could be made giving customers exactly what they wanted, quickly, rather than buying up inventory in the hopes it would sell. To do that, he needed to figure out what people were looking for, then make it. He would need to control the supply chain. Ortega had the ideal environment: Galicia. With few job opportunities, thousands of men worked at sea, leaving their women to struggle alone back home. "The women would do anything for a little money, and they were really good at sewing," says Blanco, who co-wrote a book called Amancio Ortega: From Zero to Zara. Ortega began organizing thousands of women into sewing cooperatives. He oversaw a thriving production of quilted bathrobes for his first company, GOA. Mercedes López was 14 when she went to work for Ortega and says most women were thrilled to be hired. "The conditions were really pretty good," says López, now 52, who is the textile union representative at Inditex. "We knew Amancio well. He was very close to the workers." It was a family business: Ortega ran design, his brother Antonio headed the commercial side, and his sister Josefa was the bookkeeper. The company trucked in textiles from Barcelona, cutting out the middlemen.

With enough cash, Ortega opened his first storefront in 1975, two blocks from his teenage job at Gala. He named it Zara, because his preferred name, Zorba, was taken. From the outset, Ortega made speed the driving force. Decades later it still is. Zara stores refresh their stock twice a week and receive orders within 48 hours, tops. Ortega imposed the 48-hour rule in the 1970s, forcing him to open the first Zara stores near La Coruña. Many lined the well-traveled truck route to Barcelona's textile factories. Even as the company grew, Ortega stuck to his two rules.

MORE: Turning fashion video into a money-maker

It took Ortega 10 years to found the holding company, Inditex, and open his first international store in Portugal -- whose labor force, cheaper than Spain's, made it the next obvious place to produce; New York and Paris followed in the late 1980s. While Zara proliferated across Europe through the 1990s, much of the production was kept close to home. "Our roots have always been in manufacturing," says Jesús Echevarria Hernández, Inditex's spokesman, sitting in the company's sprawling headquarters in Arteixo, outside La Coruña, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking farmland. "When we come here, we always refer to it as 'going to the factory.'"

The factory is part sci-fi machine, part old-fashioned retail -- a well-oiled operation organized around Ortega's twin principles. It is restocking continually at top speed. Inside, its high-gloss, white, minimalist interiors resemble a humongous Zara store. Along two arteries down the main floor, hundreds of designers and sales analysts work at long white counters in a vast open space, grouped around regions of Zara's empire. The pace is frantic: Designers create about three items a day, and patternmakers cut one sample from each. Seated alongside them are commercial-sales specialists, each with regional expertise, who dissect tastes and customer habits using sales reports from Zara store managers to see what's selling and (more telling) what customers are looking for. Staffers say inspiration comes from the streets, clubs, bars, and restaurants. Each is trained to keep an eye on what people are wearing, just as Ortega has done for decades.




The billionare now: As the semiretired founder of Zara, Ortega lives out of a seaside multibuilding residence; he and his daughter enjoy horseracing; a Zara store in his hometown.

At one end of the Zara design floor is a small team that manages Zara.com. There, flat-screen monitors linked by webcam to offices in Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York act as trendspotters, since countries and cities are not monolithic: Tokyo's Ginza district, for example, resembles SoHo in Manhattan more than Tokyo's business district. The obsession for spotting new tastes is pure Ortega. "We never go to fashion shows," says Loreta García, who joined Inditex 23 years ago, straight out of design school, and now heads Zara Woman's trends department. "We track bloggers and listen to customers, but we change our opinions all the time," she says. "What seems great today, in two weeks is the worst idea ever."

What keeps this machine ticking is the logistics department -- "the essence of the company," says Echevarria, who credits the system for such turnaround speeds in places as far-flung as Baku and Melbourne. At 400,000 square feet, the logistics building is more than three times the size of headquarters across the street, and is organized around a Rube Goldberg-style labyrinth of conveyer belts extending five stories high. It delivers customized orders to every Zara store on the planet. There is a firm 24-hour turnaround deadline for Europe, the Middle East, and much of the U.S., and 48 hours for Asia and Latin America.

MORE: Can the Lucky jean guys get lucky again?

The unusual arrangement is pure Ortega. Though he officially handed the reins to Pablo Isla in July 2011, Ortega remains the company's muse, inspiration, and biggest shareholder. Astonishingly, Ortega has never had an office. Even now, the world's third-richest man sits at a desk at the end of Zara Woman's open workspace. Ortega prefers touching fabrics to reading memos. "It's as though there are no computers," García says. "The directors are like that too now," she says. "We all started here young and have grown up with Ortega." Newer staff members say they are astonished at how often Ortega discusses colors and trends with them. "You can ask Ortega, 'What do you think of this?' It's very flexible," says García. "You don't have to fix an appointment." Asked what Ortega's legacy will be at Inditex, Isla, the CEO, answered similarly: "The entrepreneurial spirit, the self-criticism, the culture: The company is completely flat."

Ortega's insistence on staying close to home and his ability to connect with even low-level employees raise an intriguing question: Would his executive style have been more hierarchical and conventional -- and perhaps less successful -- had he emerged from a privileged family and with an MBA, rather than from dire poverty with little education? "Poverty clearly made him who he is," says Blanco, who wrote his unauthorized biography. "There was a hunger. Show me any great boxer who didn't come from this kind of background."




The floor of Zara's logistics building, where clothing arrives from Brazil, China, and India, only to be shipped back out in under 24 hours

In semiretirement, Ortega now lives in a five-story sea-facing house in La Coruña, on a busy city street, with little evident security. He eats breakfast every morning (eggs and fries, say friends) with acquaintances at La Coruña's businessmen's club, and retreats on weekends to his country house, where he raises chickens and goats and gathers his grown children. A creature of habit, Ortega devotes weeks a year to hiking pilgrimage routes in Galicia, and his lifelong aversion to flying keeps him from traveling much. Antonio Grandío Dopico, economics professor at the University of La Coruña, who has known Ortega since Inditex began, says his old friend's life philosophy is "absolute normality."

Yet these are not normal times in Spain. Youths in their twenties -- Zara's key market -- suffer unemployment rates of about 50%, double the national average. The country's economic pain is clear walking through La Coruña. The commercial artery has dozens of boarded-up storefronts. The one bright spot is a renovated building on a prized corner near the port, lit up and humming with action: the city's premier Zara store.

How long can Zara maintain its relentless expansion? With Europe's slowdown, the company expanded in the U.S. and Asia, with a splashy opening on Fifth Avenue last year, and in September launched Zara.com in China. As Zara expands farther from La Coruña, Ortega's rules might collide with the reality of shipping hundreds of thousands of garments a year back to Galicia for distribution.

Zara may change, but the man who built this retail giant will always be, deep down, a small-town hero. Once, when traveling to a store opening in Manhattan, Ortega watched as shoppers poured through the doors. He was so overcome he shut himself in a bathroom and wept. "No one could see the tears streaming down my face," he told O'Shea. "Can you imagine how I thought of my parents then? How proud they would have been of their son who had, so to speak, discovered America, starting from a little town lost in the sticks of northern Spain!"

This story is from the January 14, 2013 issue of Fortune.
Meet Amancio Ortega: The third-richest man in the world - Fortune Management

Saturday, February 23, 2013

An oasis of wine in South Africa

Breakfast is better with bubblies 

From The International Herald Tribune:

An oasis of wine in South Africa
BY BAZ DREISINGER

Breakfast is better with bubblies. I learned this shortly after waking up one crisp morning at the Steenberg Hotel and Vineyards, a storied South African property that seems to have emerged from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. Picture a 17th-century manor house against a backdrop of cloud-cloaked mountains, with Egyptian geese and guinea fowl poised picturesquely on the lawn. Never mind a cappuccino; my prawn and goat cheese omelet was perfectly paired with a glass of Steenberg's signature Graham Beck Brut NV — the same one, incidentally, served at Nelson Mandela's inauguration.

After several days in Constantia, a suburb about 15 kilometers, or 10 miles, south of Cape Town, one may start to swear that, really, everything is better with bubblies. Or sauvignon blanc, or shiraz — anything grown and bottled in the Constantia Valley, one of the Southern Hemisphere's oldest winemaking regions.



http://travel.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/travel/hiking-biking-and-bubbly-in-south-africa.html


Wandering star - FT.com

Synagogue-hound Simon Schama on his love of Jewish history 

Wandering star - FT.com


©Alamy

Tombstone with Star of David in Marrakech

The sign at the excavation site said, "Aramean Quarter" but we hadn't flown our cameras and gear hundreds of miles up the Nile to Elephantine Island in search of wandering Arameans.

There had, indeed, been Arameans – the ancient people who became Syrians – working in the stone quarries on the Aswan side of the river in the fifth century BC when Egypt was a Persian province. But the sign was an official, nervous, euphemism for what is a much more surprising truth about those who peopled the green, egret-flown island: they were Judaeans. Not cultured intellectuals or chanting priests either but hard men, mercenary soldiers, patrolling the dangerous frontier between Egypt and Nubia. The Judaean troop manned a garrison on Elephantine Island, along with their families, slaves and servants, and they are the first Jewish emigrants we know anything about from sources other than the Bible.

Those documents are among the papyri and clay fragments acquired in 1893 by Charles Wilbour, a former newspaperman from New York who had remade himself as an amateur Egyptologist in the last decades of the 19th century. Written in startlingly sharp Aramaic square form (now commonly used in printed Hebrew), the Elephantine papyri meant little to Wilbour, who was after older, bigger things. But carefully scrutinised – first by German and French scholars in the early years of the 20th century and then, from the late 1960s onwards, in a great work of decoding by the Israeli scholar Bezalel Porten – they revealed a complete Jewish frontier world a long way from Jerusalem.

©ruthellengruber.com

Broken headstone at Satiniv cemetery in Ukraine

Most of the documents are legal but – in these pre-nups, property-line disputes, dowries, wills and the elegantly worded manumissions from slavery that sent its beneficiaries "from the shade into the light" – all manner of people, high and low, along with their loves and hates, grudges and obsessions, dress and food, came back to life.

Their identity, as distinct from that of the Egyptians and Arameans also living on the island, is apparent in their names, nearly all of which preserve in their ending the suffix -iah, the name of their protecting God. So we know all about "Lady Mibtahiah", the richly-endowed daughter of a priestly establishment, who carved her way swiftly through three husbands including an Egyptian masterbuilder whom she koshered up and renamed Nathan; Ananiah, who married Tamut the slave-girl, the property of a friend Meshullam, produced children and set them up in their own houses. Through a letter from a father called Osea (like my own), fretting over his son Shelomam's dangerous posting south, we know the Jewish guilt trip was already being played like a harp. "Since you left," the father writes (defensively, having failed to pick up his son's wages and kit), "my heart has not been well," and then, the inevitable clincher, ringing down through the ages in just three inexorable, unanswerable words: "Likewise your mother."

In the Brooklyn Museum, the transcribed and translated papyri were as close as I could get to the Elephantine Judaeans. Now, in the broiling heat, standing on Elephantine Island together with a camera crew and a guard packing (much to the delight of our cameraman who likes pointing things at bystanders) a mighty Glock big-boy semi-automatic, there we were, on the site of the town, excavated since the 1990s. All of a sudden Lady Mibtahiah was into her pot of unguents, just around the corner. The lanes of grey-brown mud bricks peopled themselves in my mind with back-alley moochers and scroungers, and the non-Jewish "pilots of the rough waters" who lived nearby. There were animals in the courtyards; cooking on the hearths, smoke through the chimneys, gossip in the market. It was often the tiny things that brought the lost Jewish world back most vividly: glinting specks of golden straw still embedded in the bricks, granite steps flecked with rose pink that announced the houses of Big Shots, even the impression of furled capitals decorating their doorways.

©Alamy

Marriage document in Aramaic from 449BC

In flagrant violation of the laws restricting sacrifice to the Jerusalem Temple, the Elephantine Jews built their own place of assembly, probably some time in the interval between the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the rebuilding of its successor courtesy of the Persians. Its offerings of slaughtered sheep would also not have gone down well with the priests of the Temple of Khnum over the way, whose deity, presiding over the life-giving inundation of the Nile, was the ram-god. The rams' heads, and their ritual sarcophagi, are still there, while nothing remains of the Judaean temple sanctuary except rubble that tells its own sad story. In 410, grumbling Egyptian resentment against the Persians was mobilised against the people who must have been stigmatised as their frontier soldiers. An attack on the Temple razed it to the ground. Letters sent to Jerusalem, asking permission to rebuild, bewail what had been lost: bronze doors, the cedar roof and the gold and silver ritual vessels. Permission was granted for a diminished form of the temple: no more animal sacrifice, instead, just the dishes of cereals and fruit.

In effect, the Elephantine sanctuary became more like a synagogue, a place of assembly, prayer and reading. Which doesn't necessarily mean a modest, austerely undecorated building, sealed off from the culture surrounding it. In fact, because of the prohibition on imitating the Jerusalem Temple in form and rituals, there was never a prescribed template for synagogue architecture, other than a niche or cupboard to keep the scrolls of the law, the Torah, a reading area, usually raised, and a place of ritual purification. In Spain, in Cordoba, even after falling to the Christians, the synagogue is covered in the intricate lacery of mudéjar stucco, Hebrew replacing the Arabic calligraphy of the mosques. There is gothic vaulting in the medieval Altneuschul in Prague; airy pastel-brilliant rococo in the 18th-century synagogue at Cavaillon in Provence; mosque-like colonnaded aisles in the Tránsito synagogue in Toledo, Spain; Maghreb painted tiles in the oldest synagogue of Marrakech; and, on Fifth Avenue in New York, an immense nave-like space, in imitation of the Manhattan cathedrals, along with an enormous rose window of stained glass at the entry end of the building.

. . .

©Alamy

The main hall at the Paradesi synagogue in Kerala

Well before I got started on the BBC series, I had become a compulsive synagogue-hound, the more far-flung the better. There was no holiday I wouldn't interrupt by dashing off in search of another ancient gathering place. Children would offer a resigned, "Right, Dad" to a sighting of a menorah, the seven-branched candlestick that is the most enduring emblem of the religion, cut into steps at Ephesus; mosaic patterns surviving on the floor of a synagogue in Ostia, the port of ancient Rome. I played truant from a literary festival in Kerala with a pal to drive four hours up the coast to find the 16th-century Paradesi synagogue in the candidly named "Jew Town" of Kochi (the Indian port city formerly known as Cochin), where Jews had traded in Malabar peppercorns, cardamom, gem-encrusted gewgaws and jangling heavy silver jewellery. The floor is covered with Ming tiles (or their Portuguese and Dutch approximations) testifying to the links with Jewish traders even farther east in China; the reading dais with its balustrade is gilded sandalwood and teak, and from the ceiling hang low chandeliers of brilliantly coloured glass lamps.

©Alamy

Menorah mosaic at Sepphoris synagogue in Israel

One of the very last Jews in Kochi, Sara Cohen, now in her nineties, unfolded herself from her seat like one of the delicate cotton and linen lawn cloths she sells to express sadness, her head doing the sideways bob, that the minyan – the 10 Jewish males needed for a service – depended now on rounding up the occasional visitor. The place, like Cohen herself, had become a tourist attraction, an obligatory stopping-off site for schoolchildren bused in to be lectured on Indian multiculti. But come Friday nights, she said, with that simultaneous rueful smile, sigh and shrug that Jewish women have down pat, she would go up the lane, sit on one of the benches and have a good cry. What a performer! Head-bob aside, she could be my Auntie Esther in a coral print.

But Jewish walls don't invariably wail. The establishment of synagogues in the Mediterranean predated the destruction of Herod's Temple in 70AD. And even when the synagogues multiplied to fill the void left by the Temple's disappearance, localising worship, they used brilliant imagery – above all, floor mosaics – to perpetuate the memory of Temple ritual. There was enough contention in the interpretation of the Second Commandment's ban on "graven images", between those who took a strict view that it precluded all representation and those who assumed it meant idolatrous statuary and sculpture in particular, to allow for pictorial dazzlement to enter the synagogue precincts.

©Alamy

Wall painting of Ezekiel's prophecy at the Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria

So where we could find colour and animation, we went to film it. The most startling of all are the wall paintings of a 3rd-century synagogue at Dura-Europos, covering its entire length with Bible scenes – Moses in the bullrushes; Samuel (in toga) anointing David, Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus. Sadly, the murderous Syrian civil war put that off limits to us. But in a fifth-century synagogue at Sepphoris, a few miles outside Nazereth in Galilee, a place devout enough for the Sanhedrin religious court to reside there for a while, the brilliant mosaics go beyond memories of lost Temple rites and objects – the trumpets, menorah and incense shovels – and incorporate imagery shared with pagan neighbours. Around the great wheel of the sun deity Helios revolve the signs of the Zodiac, including the figures of Virgo, Gemini, Aquarius and the rest, and even more beguilingly, feminine personifications of the seasons and months. Summer sports a nifty hat and earrings; Winter a mantling headdress and sorrowing expression, Spring, as you might expect, big cow eyes, a brocaded gown and a piled-up hairdo of thick blonde tresses.

©Oxford Film and TV

Simon Schama visiting graves at the Jewish cemetery in Sataniv in Ukraine

Heroic exuberance may not be what you might expect of the sites of Jewish memory but it's not as if communities were organised assuming the worst, following the Jewish mother who signalled her son, "Start worrying. Telegram follows." Deep in the heartland of Hasidic Ukraine, we spent a night in a sanatorium-cum-health resort where couples danced marionettishly as strung by a higher power. The landings were furnished with vitrines displaying second world war hand grenades, and the morning shower issued not water, not even of the tawny kind common to these places, but the unmistakable hiss and pong of gas. The welcome mat was evidently out for the Jews. But we rallied to find ourselves in a Hasidic cemetery with gravestones dating from the 17th century. And there was nothing dead about them. On the stone, the long-eared hares of spring bounded about the wheeling circle of the cosmos, paunchy bears reached for bunches of grapes, lions did their rampant thing and the long departed seem to dance impishly over the Podolian hillside.

On the opposite bank of the river, Boris, Ukrainian and now in his seventies, spoke of the 17th-century stone synagogue that he pretty much single-handedly saved from the bulldozer as if it were his home or even "my friend". When he leaves town, he says, his handsomely pink face creasing, "I miss it." During his wife's last months of life, he would go to stand in the ruined interior, stand on the "magic stone" of the Hasidim and came to an illumination that he would somehow survive her passing. When Boris says this, he gives me a flash of teeth as golden as a Jerusalem sunrise.

-------------------------------------------

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. His BBC television series 'The Story of the Jews' will be shown later this year. As part of Jewish Book Week, he will give a talk about the series at Kings Place, London, on Monday, www.kingsplace.co.uk

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013



http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/fde9dd5e-7c21-11e2-99f0-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2LkBo7wQp

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Luxury Rental Girlfriend | Observer

Why go out with a Wife in Training when you can go out with the Perpetual Girlfriend? She puts out every time like she's bucking for a rating, 

The Luxury Rental Girlfriend

Why buy the long-term relationship when short-term does the trick?

Illustration by Thomas Pitilli.

Illustration by Thomas Pitilli.

Jack is in his 30s. He's good-looking, makes money and has a nice apartment, and in this city, what all that gets you is almost everything. He meets me on Greenwich Street one morning for black coffee. Two girls he knows come walking by. He smiles, and his blue eyes are warm, but on one girl's face you can see that whole wringing week she waited for a call.

You're Jack, and you take a girl out to dinner at Blue Ribbon, and she spends three hours deciding if you're the kind of guy who will like her more if she sleeps with you or if she doesn't. If you like her enough, it will mean East Hampton on Memorial Day and Nantucket on Labor Day and New Canaan for life. And God help her, there will be golden retrievers. 

Jack can have any girl he wants. A blond event planner who wears heels on Sunday mornings. A former fit model who looks great in Hanes white. A yoga instructor who makes him spicy tempeh wraps with steamed kale on the side. There are girls who make great Bloody Marys and there are good girls who go to church on Sunday with their families, but last night they were at Jack's. There are girls who ride horses and lawyers and designers and tall ones and short ones, stacking their needs up across his walls and then saying those are not needs, they are shadows.

So why does Jack prefer escorts?

One night Jack comes over to my apartment. He brings over a girl named Kimberly (her fake name) who says she's 24 (her fake age). She's wearing jeans, a black scoop-neck shirt and tall black suede boots. She looks like the part of Florida she's from, sun-pressed and squeezed out into a glass.

She and Jack have this easy back-and-forth, sitting side by side at the kitchen table. They've known each other for about a year. He found her on Backpage.com, which is where people like Jack have gone since Craigslist shut down its Adult Services section.

The first time, she gave him oral sex. She came over to his big apartment, and it was a blinder date than usual because Jack was looking for a quick fix. Normally he does his homework, using Eros.com, which is an escort directory, and The Erotic Review, or TER, which is Yelp for the sex trade, where johns trade information about the escorts and offer specific statistics. Hair length? Photo accurate? Shaved? More than one guy at a time? Full, no-rush session?

Created a decade ago by a john who was tired of being misled, TER sees about 350,000 visitors a day, men between the ages of 35 and 55 with a median income of $80,000. They wax nostalgic about Mistress Natalie and Emma of New York, and if you pay for a membership, you too can read about how WkndWhacker found VIP Daisy's breasts even fuller in the flesh than they looked on her website, and how the way she kissed was like "honey warming in his mouth."

At first it seems like a niche thing, and then one night a bunch of guys have four Coors Lights and one general counsel says to another, "Wait, so what's your TER handle?"

The guys refer to themselves as hobbyists. The hobby is sleeping with beautiful women and then reviewing and categorizing them. It's as routine as Zagat, clinical in its ratings, exuberant in its quotables and so much a part of a hobbyist's daily throttle that a group of escorts recently offered a holiday discount to johns who make donations to the K.I.D.S. Hurricane Sandy relief fund.

Many of the girls provide the Girlfriend Experience, or GFE. They rub your back and you take them to dinner, and they are in tune with politics, so you can say how you feel about Obamacare. You share some Kumamotos and Sancerre and then you cab back to the Waldorf.

There's Venezuelan Goddess, who has long black hair and D-cup breasts in a lace demi and ankle cowboy boots. There is Bai Xi, who always pops up in the top 10; she's small and Asian and replies to emails promptly. There is Jessica, with her Farrah Fawcett waves and Eastern Bloc lips. She says, "I have very long blonde hair & soft skin with amazing eyes & great smile. My outgoing personality will have you feeling very comfortable from the moment we meet, as if we have known each other for years."

And that's the main ticket. That's why guys like Jack hire Jessicas for $1,000 a night instead of paying $200 for dinner with the lawyer who's got a CrossFit addiction. The Bai Xis give you the same thing. Why go out with a Wife in Training when you can go out with the Perpetual Girlfriend? She puts out every time like she's bucking for a rating, while the Wife in Training wants to know why you didn't walk the four flights of her walk-up to collect her for dinner. She wants your mornings. The Girlfriend only needs your nights.

YOU arrange to meet a married john at a place where a married john would go to meet an escort. There's a bar on the seventh floor of the W New York hotel called The Living Room. It's got white leather and no windows. Constant bachelor nighttime. Mitchell arrives, all high-low in monogrammed French cuffs, a great suit and a Kenneth Cole Reaction tie. He carries a briefcase—he's the general counsel of a CPA firm, which he's been with for more than 30 years.

Mitchell's a master hobbyist. He sees about 25 girls a year. He makes over a million annually and spends about $50,000 a year on the hobby. He pays a minimum of $500 an hour for a girl, and doesn't price shop. Mitchell has a girl in every city he travels to. I know his New York girl. Her work alias is Katelyn, and she's a blond Australian with large breasts, a small waist and an equestrian face. She charges $5,000 for an entire evening.

They catch up on the couch for 45 minutes. There are tagines from her trips to Morocco and sweet-smelling candles. He tells her about the grandchild he's raising with his wife. She tells him about her dives in Mexico. After a glass or two of wine, they start to kiss. Every man I speak to about Katelyn talks about the way she kisses. Deep French Kissing. DFK.

"She is also incredibly smart," said Mitchell. She was a marketing executive in another life, and she is well-read in the classics and on current events. She reads a lot about human psychology, and she understands the pathos behind the desires she fulfills.

"She will send me a catch-up email every once in a while, when she hasn't heard from me." Over Super Bowl weekend, she sent pictures of herself dressed in a cutoff jersey and boy shorts, exulting over a play on the television, on her knees on a white hotel duvet.

Mitchell calls his hobby "seeking relationships outside of marriage." He has sex with his wife only sporadically. She's overweight again. A few years back, she lost 150 pounds, but now she is back in the upper 200s. "I don't see it as cheating," he said. "I believe what she doesn't know won't hurt her."

It's 2 a.m., and Kimberly is drinking orange juice. She is talking to Jack and me about some of her other clients, the fat ones and the grandpa types.

"Are the old ones difficult, because they take so long?" Jack asked.

She laughs and punches his arm. "There are tricks," she said. "But guys will do anything to just come. This one guy rolls in with a colostomy bag, and it broke my heart." This was at the Waldorf.

"But this guy," she said, jerking her thumb at Jack, "this guy is like the dream client. You walk into his door and he's good-looking and sweet, and he like makes you any drink you want, and he doesn't even want to get laid most times. And in case you couldn't tell, he can have any girl he wants."

On nights when she's not working or she hasn't had a call yet, Kimberly will let Jack take her to a hookah place in the West Village. He'll pay for her dinner and her smoke but nothing else, and she'll check her phone and leave when she needs to.

"She's like my buddy," Jack said. "That's what the girls I date don't understand. We can have a nice romantic night together or whatever and then I don't text her for three weeks, and she doesn't even miss me."

"I always miss you," she said to his face in the mirror.

"Yeah, whatever. Look, Kimberly and I have an understanding."

Jack has seen a good 50 percent of the stock on Eros. He sleeps with older women, mothers and women with overgrown roots. Some months he pays for their car insurance. He shows me a text from a stripper in Pennsylvania whose TV he hung on the wall for her.

"How about this one?" I asked, pointing to Nikki Irish on the screen. She is older and not Jack's usual type. "Oh yeah, Nikki," he said. "Don't make that face. What's great about Nikki is she loves sex. Maybe it's just sex with me," he said, winking at Kimberly. "The point is we'll do it, and then 10 minutes later, she'll want to do it again, and we're over her time and she doesn't ask for more money. Look, I'm not one of those fools who go to strip clubs and think the girl falls in love with them. But I know when a woman likes sex. And men like women who genuinely like sex."

On a Monday night at Katelyn's apartment on the East Side, she is wearing a melon-colored shirt and loose jeans, and her blond hair is up in a clip. Her male chef friend is drinking wine and smoking cigarettes at the window.

There is a shoe closet where the spiked Louboutins and the slick yellow YSLs are in labeled bins. "You take care of expensive things," she said, which is why she charges a high price—twice as much as Kimberly. "The more you charge, the more worth it a man thinks you are."

On her couch, where most dates begin, she pulls out a three-ring binder that houses a sheaf of spreadsheets, one for each of the 290 men she has known professionally. Here's a knee surgeon. Here's a national branding manager. Here's a diplomat. Here's a philanthropist. He's very cool, tall and charming and has a great head of curly hair. He is married and wears traditional suits. There is a cinematographer in his mid- to late 30s who likes her in sweats.

There is a section for referrals. There is a slot for Spouse. A CPL slot, for whether she has been with him and his spouse. A DBL slot, for whether she has been with the man plus one of her fellow escorts.

What he drinks. Where he works. Average meeting length. I tell her about Jack, and she says that yes, she does have a Jack type. A financier originally from Austin had his friend in from home. They were in the Hamptons, at a house on the beach. They sent a Town Car at 4 p.m. on a Sunday to pick up Katelyn and her friend Eva, who is an Australian brunette. The rest of the shares had left the house. Katelyn and her friend got there, and there was a note on the door that said, "Go inside. There are envelopes on the table. Have a swim in the ocean, we're picking up dinner."

And the girls came in from a swim, shaking off their wet hair on the patio and the boys were on the deck grilling rib eyes and tongues of eggplant, and they had wine and then dinner, and then they watched television, and afterward they coupled up and went into separate bedrooms, and there was nothing strange. It was nice. These nice boys from Texas.

"I would date them," Katelyn said. At around 11, Katelyn's date, who was high, was in the mood for cookies, so they decided to drive back into Manhattan. They dropped the girls off at Katelyn's, and Katelyn said to Eva: "Well. A few hours in the Hamptons, and cookies. Did we really just make $3,500 to do that?"

Katelyn is sensuous, elegant and smart. Men buy her La Perla lingerie and leave her money in envelopes on coffee tables, and she knows how to dress a roast and when to listen.

When Katelyn is not working, she is working out and reading and dining out with friends and going to London for the weekend and Paris for the week. She is practicing yoga and bettering her body and her mind and advancing her entire being so that she will continue to appreciate in value, in a world where youth is prized over experience, and in a city where women will sleep with men for less than Katelyn makes in a minute.

"What women don't understand is that with married men, their wives don't listen like I do anymore, and it's not because they're bad people. They have children, and they have had 20, 30, 40 years with this man. Boredom sets in. Life sets in. And for the young guys like the man from Austin, he could have sent a town car to pick up any girl he knew in New York. But with me, we can still talk about politics, but I go home and the night is over. Women underestimate the importance of a night being over."

 The level of self-awareness among johns varies. But for most men who sleep with escorts, they're getting what they need from women without having to give back. If they do something nice for the escort—which many of them do—it's purely voluntary. There's a joy in doing nice things when they're unexpected, like at the beginning of a relationship.

There is, too, the excitement of the secret life. When your friends have gone home to their girlfriends, or the girl you've gone on a first date with has gone home to dream of your wedding, there is the promise of the evening that follows. "Sometimes it's just that I can have this beautiful girl sitting on the couch beside me," Jack said. "I don't even want to fuck her necessarily, it's just nice to know I can reach across and touch her right boob, if I want to."

The thing is, with Mitchell and Katelyn and Jack and Kimberly, it is an intimate relationship with boundaries. With Katelyn, you pay for a certain amount of time, and you feel for her and she feels for you—during that time. What she has that Mitchell's wife doesn't is the magic switch. "Ideally," said Mitchell, "you want to have the feeling of making love without having the emotional requirement thereafter."

Men want to be loving. They want the GFE without the LTR. They want to make love and nibble on lips and watch television and Herbal Essence a woman's hair in the shower and even tell her that they love her, and know she won't turn it into something else. They feel it in the moment, then they go to work and the moment stays home, until next time, or until they fall in love.

Mitchell has said to Katelyn, "I love you." She has said it back. Both of them mean it in the moment. But you can't turn every ride into an odyssey. So you're Jack, and you are single and disarming and the world is waiting for you, but you're not ready. So you sit back on your couch and you watch the game, and you crack a beer and you call a girl up, and she comes over in a black turtleneck dress and thigh-highs, or she comes over in sweats. She comes over and then she leaves, and she leaves more than she comes over.

editorial@observer.com

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