I was modeling, I would always look at the client and think,
She claims to be a lifelong entrepreneur, having sold painted rocks with her sister as a child (undercutting Mary's price by half). By 1999, she was named Businesswoman of the Year by the National Association of Women Business Owners.
And these days her Kathy Ireland Worldwide lines of home furnishings and clothing bring in more than $1 billion a year in sales. She's the CEO and chief designer of the 37-person company, which targets products at busy moms...
Earlier this year, Ireland scored a licensing coup when she beat out Donna Karan and Calvin Klein for the right to produce reproductions of highly acclaimed folk art quilts from a group of African American women from Alabama.
She does it all while raising three kids and spending considerable time on charitable projects, including mentoring six teenage mothers. And while she's getting better at delegating, she still delves into the daily minutiae of shipping problems and product development.
"I can't say I sleep a lot," she says. "I'm too much of a control freak."
feature article on Top 10 Celebrity Entrepreneurs, Inc. Magazine,
~ ~ ~ ~
interview by Douglas Eby
Honored as an Entertainment Businesswoman of the Year, Kathy Ireland has also gained recognition for her line of clothing, and last year started her website KathyIreland.com which includes material about The Kathy Ireland Home Collection, featuring pieces designed by herself and her partners.
"It's a collaboration," she notes. "It's wonderful for me to work with such talented people, but ultimately, at the end of the day, I'm forced to be the editor. It's up to me to decide what will go to market, and it's a tremendous responsibility, but one that I really enjoy.
I feel I'm able to serve my customer by knowing what she or he wants. One of the ways I'm able to do this is through my website, and email: people give me great ideas, tell me what they want, what they don't want. It's really instrumental, and helps me stay in touch with people."
The Home Collection is a variety of furnishings she has been working on for several years, but waited to present to the public, via her website and other publications, until late last year. "I wanted to make sure we had everything just right, and that's why it took the time that it did," she explains.
There are several aspects of her business ventures that interested her early in life. "I can't say I knew as a child that I was going to be involved in home furnishings or apparel, but I was very interested in design, and art.
"My mom is always telling the story of when I was ten years old, and she came home and I was standing in the driveway with a contractor. I had just looked in the yellow pages and called this guy to come over.
I was tired of sharing my bedroom with my sister, so I wanted to see how much it would cost to convert the garage into a bedroom. I had a paper route, so knew I was going to be having some income. But the job was going to be about twenty thousand dollars," she adds, laughing.
The way people live has always been a strong interest to her. "One of the things that really inspired this home furnishings collection was the trip I took as a child," she says.
"My dad's from Liverpool, and when I was eight years old, we went to England. We did the tourist things, and stopped at Windsor Castle. I was so awe-inspired by the beauty and the enormity. And even though it was so tremendous and enormous, at the same time, it had this really warm and collected feeling.
"I remember going back to school, and having the assignment to 'Draw what you did on your summer vacation' and I tried to sketch pictures of the castle and what I saw inside. That's something I really wanted to capture in the collection: that warmth.
"When we were preparing to market, I asked His Royal Highness Prince Edward if he would be so kind as to meet with my team, and he came out to California and met with us. He also gave us a private glimpse of the restoration of Windsor Castle, the project he'd been working on."
This unique opportunity to revisit the historical castle, she feels, was "really beneficial for my team and me. We keep thinking about what we're going to make, and what's new and different. Every six months we're bringing out new pieces.
"For us to appreciate things that are new, it's important to have that respect and appreciation for things that are old. And it's really my desire that the pieces in my collection would become antiques and heirlooms. I want them to be of that quality, that they would be passed on from generation to generation. It's clear to me that if we did not have these master craftsmen and women, we wouldn't be able to have precious antiques and beautiful pieces."
With that appreciation, Ireland makes use of the skills of both English and American artisans. Most of the pieces are made in North Carolina, and there are American influences as well on the designs. "Windsor Castle was an inspiration for some of the collection," she notes, "and other inspirations were coastal towns: my home town of Santa Barbara, Carmel, Martha's Vineyard: that kind of easy, comfortable living.
"In the research we have done, and this is for apparel as well, comfort is not a trend. I see it as a revolution. People want comfort, and that translates into furniture, too. People are very savvy, and they know what they want. They want elegance, they want luxurious fabrics, both in apparel and in home furnishings. And they want comfort and value. So it's a great challenge, and I love it."
One of her primary concerns in developing her clothing and furniture designs, Ireland says, is to provide for the needs of professional women such as herself, who are "time-starved and wise with their money."
She is a busy, working mom. "I just dropped my son off at kindergarten and had my baby with me, had cookies for a bake sale," she notes. "It was a crazy morning, like every morning. For me, I get the kids ready, and then myself ready last. I'm usually getting dressed in the dark, I just grab something. In the past, there were so many times when I just looked down at myself and went 'What was I thinking? This top doesn't go with these bottoms.' It's one of the things I've worked really hard on in my collection; I want to make it foolproof for people.
"And I'm finding ways to carry that over into home furnishings. For example, I've got a beautiful pine dining table, and this table works with any chair in my collection. I show it with a bench, because I think it's kind of a fun way, it's different, people are more casual even in their dining. And the table also works with bistro chairs, with wicker chairs... any chair in the collection will work.
"And I love that because it shows people that they can experiment, take a risk, and their own unique style can come out. When I go to a home, when I walk through the door, I want to get a feel for the people who live there, not just what someone else put together, but their own style.
"And the pieces are really meant to blend with things people already have, or put together in many different combinations. Or can move."
While having a team of people helping her, Ireland says she does find time to design pieces herself, "All the time. For the furniture, I'll do sketches and send them off to Shelby Piggot (vice president of merchandising at Vanguard, the manufacturing company). She's working as my mentor in this area.
"And we have incredible master craftsmen and women, wonderful fabrics we're working with, like washed chenille, washed damask, and linen. Linen is something I was a little hesitant about because it seemed kind of stuffy, and I wanted comfort,
"But it's amazing how they've put this together. We have this Bergere chair that we interpreted in wrought iron, and we have some linen sofas as well, and they're really comfortable."
Her website includes a wide range of information on health, family, fashion, and travel topics in addition to material about her business ventures. Ireland explains that people are "so busy in their lives, and if they're going to take time to visit my site, I want them to walk away with something.
"It's got to be of service. My goal is to make someone's day a little bit better. The site can inform them, show them different ways of doing things they haven't thought of; it's sharing information, and that's what I see as such a blessing of the technology. People can take the information or not, but just to be able to offer that service: I love that."
The site does not include sales at this point. Her clothing line and exercise equipment are marketed through K-Mart, and the Home Collection is to be available at furniture boutiques across the country in early 2000. Ireland also has a collection with Butterick Vogue Patterns. As a child, she recalls, "My mom made the majority of our clothes.
"I spent so much in fabric stores. For thirty dollars, you can buy a pattern and buy some wonderful fabric, and have a beautiful dress you can wear out for the evening, or a New Year's Eve party. And you can make more than one dress from a pattern, so you can make it for friends, and as gifts. I really appreciate people who have the gift to be able to sew and make clothes."
She is also working on a collection of precious jewelry. "It's something that's fun," she says. "It's always been kind of a dream, and I'm doing it through Kashmiri of Beverly Hills."
Another area of interest is her "Just for Girls" line of accessories and swimwear, also marketed through K-Mart. "My daughter Lily just turned one, and she's a great source of inspiration for that," Ireland notes.
"All the cute little hair accessories I try out on her, and it's really fun." Both Lily and her five-year-old son Erik "really help me" she says. "They seem interested in what I'm doing. My son will give his input. I'll be looking at swatches of fabric for the furniture, and I'll ask his opinion: 'What texture do you like? What pattern?'
"And he's very specific about what he likes and doesn't like. And Lily, she's just starting to speak, but I can tell she has a very strong personality and a strong will, and knows what she likes and doesn't like, so she's going to be very instrumental to me as well."
Ireland also does a lot of work in various areas of philanthropy, such as serving as Ambassador of Women's Health for The Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), Chairing the Family Services Division of Athletes and Entertainers For Kids, as Family Chair for the Kmart Kids Race Against Drugs (KKRAD), and Ambassador for The Dream Foundation.
But her preference is to keep the things that she does private, she notes: "I don't usually like to publicly call attention. But there are certain times and certain issues when calling attention can be beneficial, and the overall outcome can be enhanced.
"And that's what I'm really concerned about. How is this going to affect these babies who are born prematurely, who might not survive? If me bringing attention to that, making people aware, and helping the overall cause, then I'm honored to do it.
"I'm serving as the honorary Chair for the March of Dimes WalkAmerica 2000 Program. They do such tremendous work. They began with the fight against polio. It's amazing the work they're doing, like fetal surgery. I've had the opportunity to visit research labs, and neonatal intensive care units, and to actually hold babies that can fit in the palm of my hand, born at twenty five weeks. And these babies would not survive except for the work of the March of Dimes."
Ireland says she is finding that being an entrepreneur is spiritually satisfying as well. "I really am. There was a period of time when I was strictly modeling, and it was very selfish of me, and rather pathetic. And I went through a brief period when I felt sorry for myself, because I wasn't feeling fulfilled in my work.
"Perhaps it's because my husband is an emergency room doctor, and he would come home and could say 'I saved a guy's life' and what I could say was 'I came up with a new pose.' It's just not the same," she adds with a laugh.
"What I realized is you don't have to get your fulfillment at work. It's great if you happen to have that kind of job. But I believe God has put us all in different places for different reasons. And I prayed about it and really felt like what He was trying to tell me was 'Open your eyes and look; there are needs all around you.'
"And when I did that, I was just amazed at the opportunity, and what really fascinated me was that through my work, there were so many opportunities I didn't realize existed. And now, I feel so blessed about the employment that my work is able to provide people."
~ ~ ~
> interview originally published in Profit Magazine, March 2000
*related pages :**
nurturing talent / achievement resources : sites/programs.
career / work resources : articles / sites / books
more***Creativity & Women columns / interviews
~ ~ ~