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Determining a compact neural coding for a set of input stimuli is an issue that encompasses several biological memory mechanisms as well as various artificial neural network models. In particular, establishing the optimal network structure is still an open problem when dealing with unsupervised learning models. In this paper, we introduce a novel learning algorithm, named competitive repetition-suppression (CoRe) learning, inspired by a cortical memory mechanism called repetition suppression (RS). We show how such a mechanism is used, at various levels of the cerebral cortex, to generate compact neural representations of the visual stimuli. From the general CoRe learning model, we derive a clustering algorithm, named CoRe clustering, that can automatically estimate the unknown cluster number from the data without using a priori information concerning the input distribution. We illustrate how CoRe clustering, besides its biological plausibility, posses strong theoretical properties in terms of robustness to noise and outliers, and we provide an error function describing CoRe learning dynamics. Such a description is used to analyze CoRe relationships with the state-of-the art clustering models and to highlight CoRe similitude with rival penalized competitive learning (RPCL), showing how CoRe extends such a model by strengthening the rival penalization estimation by means of loss functions from robust statistics.