Kathy Ireland's Journey from Model to Mogul to Role Model

By Scott S. Smith | Friday, 01 January 2021 | Feature, Business, Interviews, Women in Business

Kathy Ireland's initial brush with fame was as a model, appearing in Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue, leading to an unprecedented series of consecutive appearances in Sports Illustrated's annual Swimsuit Edition, including three covers, one awarded as the greatest and the bestselling issue of all time. No one, not least her, imagined that one day she would become a mogul, deserving to be on the cover of Forbes three times — two US editions and one international one...so far. She is not only widely admired as a role model in business but in philanthropy, as well.

Kathy Ireland.

That road to success started with a pair of socks in 1993. She has built privately-held kathy ireland Worldwide (kiWW) into a respected global lifestyle brand with over 19,000 SKUs, everything from best-of-kind fans to weddings at her own resorts. In 2020, despite the pandemic, kiWW has experienced "tremendous growth," Ireland told Startup Savant. It recently announced a partnership with Marcus Lemonis's Camping World for a line of RV furniture, as well as one with Luminance Brands, which saw their iconic Emerson Ceiling Fans rebrand its entire collection under kathy ireland Home.

At the same time, she has also been stepping up to the economic impact of COVID-19 by providing assistance for some of its 20,000-plus retail outlets around the world through the kathy ireland Small Business Network (separate from kiWW).

"We saw small businesses shutting down everywhere and others confused about what to do to survive, so we've been supporting companies that show empathy and maintain communication with their team members, even if employees have to be furloughed," Ireland said. "UBS, the world's leading assets-under-management firm for MainStreet, learned about our efforts to help and our small business clients can receive credit cards on approval, analysis of cash flow management, and individualized financial wellness programs for each employee. It's an extraordinary program that until now has not been available on this scale for small companies."

They have also been working with American Family Insurance, a leader in inclusive policies. "We have from day one celebrated acceptance of every form of diversity, no matter the color, gender, sexual orientation, shape, or belief, which has helped us be innovative," she said. "AFI is working closely with us to develop new and special products unlike anything else."

The virus had a very personal impact on Ireland's family and company. Her husband, Gregory, is an emergency room physician and was seeing patients before anyone knew what COVID-19 was and became infected. Having never seen him so sick, she took measures to be sure no one else in the household became ill. Then kiWW's president, Stephen Roseberry, contracted the virus, even though he had no contact with her husband. Everyone became much more aware of staying healthy with good nutrition, exercise, hand-washing, and avoiding cross-contamination.

"Stephen had the brilliant foresight to decentralize our offices years before the pandemic, and so much of our team is dispersed in different locations that we have had the perfect reason to use technologies like Zoom, Skype, and various messaging apps," Ireland told CEOWorld.com.

Central to Ireland's ability to cope has been her faith, which came into her life on a Paris modeling trip. "Out of sheer boredom and anxiety, I picked up a Bible that my mom had packed for me," she recalled. "It fell open to the Gospel of Matthew, and I found truth, without which my life skills would be a mess. I open and close each day with scripture and prayer. My counsel for those who don't have a spiritual foundation is to be certain you find people who support you emotionally, regardless of your beliefs. Our country is amazingly resilient, and no matter the crisis, never bet against American recovery."

She would know, having been through two others that threatened kiWW's very existence.

From Superstar to Starting Over

Ireland was three when her family moved from Glendale, California, to Santa Barbara. The budding entrepreneur was out in the neighborhood the next year selling painted rocks from her wagon. Her father told her to "always give 110%" to anything she tried, so she won the local newspaper's Carrier of the Year three times.

Ireland was discovered at 17 in 1980 by Elite Model Management and was featured in her first swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated four years later, then on the cover in 1989, 1992, and 1994.

"Modeling gave me experience with top designers, exposure to other cultures when I traveled, which also inspired me when I came up with my own designs, and was a master class in dealing with rejection," she told Investor's Business Daily. "I was constantly told I was too short, too fat, that my hair was all wrong, that I should just shut up and pose. It toughened me and made me determined to get into a position where I could make the big decisions about my career. I wanted to create a company that wasn't based on an airbrushed fantasy of how I looked, but met the real needs of real people."

Ireland diversified her career, appearing in movies and TV series like "Melrose Place" and "The Larry Sanders Show." But by 1993, Ireland found herself pregnant and, at 30, aging by the standards of showbiz. Everyone told her she should start designing swimsuits, so when she decided to focus on better socks, they expected her to fail. In partnership with marketer John Moretz, she eventually sold more than 100 million pairs.

Ireland expanded her clothing line, which was exclusively featured at Kmart and in 1999, was named Businesswoman of the Year by the National Association of Women Business Owners. The first shock came with 9/11 when business almost came to a halt and travel was limited.

"We recognized that we needed to not only be able to sell through bricks-and-mortar, but to increase our online presence and help our retail partners do the same," she recalled.

The second thunderbolt came just four months later when Kmart went into the largest retail bankruptcy in history until the 2020 pandemic. "We decided not to desert them, even though our family was personally liable for any debts that resulted, but we also realized that we needed to start selling to independent stores," she said. "Our core team has learned many lessons working closely together for nearly three decades and we have never run from trouble."

She turned to mentors about how to diversify her outlets.

"I learned from Warren Buffett, when we worked with him on our carpet line, that you need to find stores which can deliver a great customer-service experience so we began shifting our distribution to specialty retailers, which have been the key to our success," Ireland said. "We had lucrative offers from chains to be exclusive, which would have given us much more visibility and fast growth, but also would have put a ceiling on our potential. We also need to vet everyone we work with to be sure we share the same values."

Ireland shares the stage with Buffett (who was introduced to her by Irv Blumkin, CEO of Nebraska Furniture Mart, kiWW's first furniture retail partner), as well as another mentor, Bill Gates, at the annual shareholders meeting for Berkshire Hathaway.

"We really listen to our customers, our stores, and our vendors, and if we get something wrong, we correct and improve it," she said. "If we get rejected, we want to know exactly why and learn from the experience. To be a successful entrepreneur, you need to push the boundaries and if you aren't getting told no almost every day, you aren't trying hard enough."

The magazine License! Global ranks kiWW as among the world's most powerful and admired brands, outselling other top licensors like Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren.

Lessons Learned

Ireland is obviously not just a survivor in crisis, but a thriver. Some of the lessons she passes on to others:

  • Know you can overcome any obstacle.
  • Remember that it takes years to build trust, but only a moment to destroy it. 
  • Practice your beliefs and boundaries every day. 
  • Treat everyone you work with as a family member, including employees, suppliers, stores, and individual customers.
  • Never compromise your most important values, no matter how big the incentive.
  • Enjoy the journey — being a workaholic will only lead to burnout.

She discusses the challenges on the way to success with leaders on two TV programs, "Worldwide Business" on Fox Business, which features interviews with CEOs, while "Modern Living" on Bloomberg International and WEtv informs consumers about lifestyle products and issues.

"During an economic downturn, I believe it's more important than ever to be in front of your existing customers and communicate new ways to serve them," Ireland said of her work to give exposure to worthy companies and products. "TV allows you to bring your segments to buyers at retail, broadcast them on your website, post them on YouTube, and distribute the content through press releases and other media."

She and kiWW are very active in philanthropy, recently setting up an arrangement with Kahwa Coffee Roasters that will benefit the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to research and clinical trials to find less toxic, more effective treatments for childhood cancer.

Her company has also partnered with Baratelli Properties to provide affordable residential housing to families facing financial difficulties, especially if affected by the pandemic. The venture, kathy ireland American Home, launched with a real estate portfolio that has 138 properties in 31 cities in various stages of development.

If all this wasn’t enough for one person to oversee, through kiWW's talent management arm, the Sterling Winters Company, Ireland is closely involved in guiding the careers of artists such as Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Marilyn McCoo, and Billy Davis, Jr. (drawing on her experience advising another legend, Elizabeth Taylor). 

And she recently partnered with Sam Haskell and his Magnolia Hill Productions (whose Netflix blockbuster "Christmas on the Square" starred Dolly Parton) for several projects.

Ireland also participated in the 2009 season of "Dancing with the Stars." But she had long known who the real stars are: her customers.

About the Author

Headshot for author Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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