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Kathy Ireland: from supermodel to supermogul

Kathy Ireland At 17, Kathy Ireland was discovered by Elite Modeling, and by the time she finished high school she was jet-setting to Europe for photo shoots. Her modeling career reached its peak after she snagged the highly coveted cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition in 1989. She graced the cover three more times and her swimsuit calendar grew into one of the highest-selling calendars in the world.

Ireland has also acted on stage and TV, and made her writing debut with her 2002 book, "Powerful Inspirations," but it was her entrepreneurial skills that helped transform her into a business powerhouse. Her company, Kathy Ireland Worldwide, began with a line of socks. It now grosses over $1 billion a year, producing everything from clothing to carpets for the customer just like herself: a working mom. She was awarded both the Businesswoman of the Year Award from the National Association of Women Business Owners and the National Association of Business Leaders Award.

Bankrate: A lot of the women you started out modeling with are still at it. Did you always have aspirations to do something else?

Kathy Ireland: Business and design were always of great interest to me. My first job came when I was 4 years old, and I sold painted rocks from my wagon. They were multi-functional: They could be used as decorative pieces, paperweights, or my grandmother kept them in her purse, just in case someone gave her a hard time. My sister, who was 3 years older, sold hers for more, but I learned at a young age that my customers appreciated value, and priced cheaper, my rocks went like hot cakes.

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Bankrate: A lot of people, certainly men, will always remember you as "the" supermodel, having been on the Sports Illustrated cover so many times. What did you learn from those modeling days on the road?

Kathy Ireland: I certainly didn't view myself as a super. It wasn't a career I aspired to do, but I was certainly grateful for it. It exposed me to the best designers in the world, and the travel allowed me to see different cultures and people and to see how they lived, and what they needed. And I tend to be a quiet person, and that kind of environment gives a quiet person a lot of time to think and to plan. One of the things that frustrated me was that so much of that career focused on unrealistic prices and images. I never felt comfortable earning a living on how people thought I should look and I never dreamed that it would go on as long as it did. I kept trying different businesses because I knew that I would be doing something else.

Bankrate: Why did the design company take hold?

Kathy Ireland: Our mission is to find solutions for families -- especially busy moms. And our brand isn't for everyone. The reason I'm reaching out to busy moms is simply because that what I am, it's what I know, and I know she's been underserved. We started with socks in 1993. And now we do everything from clothing to flooring to home office products. For us, safety is extremely important. For example, if we're addressing the architectural trends, it will be more soft modern, and we'll still get the sleek lines but we'll make sure there won't be sharp corners, so little ones won't run into them and get hurt.


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-- Posted: April 13, 2004
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