Kathy Ireland, the "Sports Illustrated" cover girl who was part of the first wave of "supermodels" (the others were Christie Brinkley, Cindy Crawford and Cheryl Tiegs), is now running a multibillion-dollar retail behemoth, and she's showing no signs of getting out of the game.
Ireland, who turns 49 today, is part of the group known as "model moguls," people like Jaclyn Smith and Crawford who have made big bucks by selling clothes, accessories, skin care lines and home furnishings branded with their name. But they can't hold a candle to Ireland, a devout evangelical Christian who's racked up $2 billion in retail sales and has (according to "Forbes") a staggering 15,000 products on the market. Ireland herself is worth an estimated $350 million.
If you're casually acquainted with Ireland's story, you probably know that she was on three covers of "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit issue between 1984 and 1996, or that she started in mass retail back in 1993 with a line of socks for Kmart. But the roots of Ireland's business smarts stretch back to her childhood in California.
"I was four years old -- I sold painted rocks from my wagon with my sister Mary," she once told an interviewer. "Not just ordinary rocks - you could use them as art or paperweights. My sister sold her rocks for 10 cents; I sold my rocks for a nickel -- and I did really well. I learned at a young age that my customers appreciated a good value." She also learned the value of gutsiness: When she saw an ad for newspaper delivery boys, she wrote the editor and said that girls should be hired, too. She got the job.
From 1994 to 1998, Ireland accumulated a comfortable little corner of Kmart, selling exercise clothes and swimwear in addition to socks. But, according to Forbes, her entrepreneurial vision changed in 1998, after investment genius Warren Buffett told her that in retail, fashion was fickle but home furnishings are forever.
She moved into furniture.
Like her clothing, Ireland's home furnishings are simple and down-to-earth. She doesn't aim at hip urbanites but at middle-of-the-road moms. Her company, Kathy Ireland Worldwide, which oversees all her brands, has as its motto "Finding solutions for families, especially busy moms." Those solutions cover everything from childproof tables (the rounded edges prevent injury) to economical replacement windows.
She also offers "Wedding Solutions" - a selection of traditional, lacy gowns modeled after Kate Middleton's wedding dress; a line of engagement and wedding jewelry; and two wedding "destinations" for the ceremony - one villa in California and another in Hawaii. (P.S: She owns both of them.)
You wouldn't think there's be any time left over for family, but Ireland makes no secret of their importance to her. She values their privacy, too: her husband, physician Greg Olsen, and their three children are very seldom seen in public. Ireland has been an evangelical Christian since age 18 and has said that "my personal relationship with the Lord inspires me in everything I do."
She's also been honest about her past. Asked by an interviewer for the Christian Broadcasting Network how she reconciled her faith with the provocative swimsuits she wore on the covers of "Sports Illustrated," Ireland said, "There were certain times there would be images that I'd look at in retrospect and I was not pleased with how they turned out."
Recently, she's been embroiled in a twitter fight with animal-rights activists who have protested one of her latest projects: designing fur coats for Macy's. In an uncharacteristically snappy moment, Ireland tweeted back, "Will stop fur designs when activists join fight to save babies." In the next exchange, she'd reverted to her usual politeness. "Am praying for you. God bless you."
Ireland's going ahead with the fur coats, though. And knowing the wisdom of keeping a good thing going, she's still selling those socks. They're not in Kmart anymore, but she's still selling them.
Also Popular On ThirdAge: