Swimsuit model turned fashion mogul Kathy Ireland was in downtown Santa Barbara on Dec. 5 to tout her new jewelry collection.
Ireland, who was a model for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue for 13 consecutive years from 1984 to 1996, is now the CEO and chief designer of Kathy Ireland Worldwide, a $1.4 billion clothing and furniture empire.
In an interview with the Business Times at jewelry store Bryant & Sons, the Montecito resident and mother of three talked about the challenges of being a female entrepreneur, and about the continued success of her company.
Ireland was one of the first supermodels turned businesswomen, capitalizing on her star appeal to launch the Kathy Ireland brand in 1993. But rather than jump in on the high-end of fashion as many celebrities who launch perfume or clothing lines now do, she signed on with K-Mart, creating a line of Kathy Ireland-branded socks. The big-box retailer has sold more than a 100 million pairs of the socks, according to Forbes magazine, and Los Angeles-based Kathy Ireland Worldwide now sells more than 50,000 products internationally, including clothing, jewelry and home décor.
“The women who buy my products, they don’t want an autographed photo of me. I just know that my customer is too savvy to buy a product just because my name’s on it,” Ireland told the Business Times. “The women who buy my products are busy moms. They want products that work and that are affordable.”
The 47-year-old said she’s spent years pushing down barriers in the business world. When she first started the company she faced a lot of rejection. “My modeling background helped with that,” she said. “You learn to deal with the rejection.”
Even so, she said it was tougher than she expected to get her start. “Walking in, people expected me to act a certain way. They knew me as a model. A lot of people didn’t take me seriously. It would definitely be easier now if I just walked into a room of suits and stomped in with my sketchpad.”
Asked what advice she’d lend to a young female entrepreneur starting out now, Ireland said simply, “Don’t let the rejection stop your dreams. If people aren’t saying no, you’re probably not trying hard enough.”
Her struggles to find acceptance in the business world go back to her childhood, with her first job. Ireland scoured the newspaper classifieds for a job, and found one advertising a paper route for the Santa Barbara News-Press. “Are you the right boy for the job?” it read. Ireland grabbed a piece of paper and penned a letter that would land her the route. “No, but I’m the girl for the job,” she wrote.