Kathy Ireland – Keeping the Faith

by Jesse Stirling
Photography by Richard Hume
Stylist: Toni Ferrara
Asst Stylist: Carla Pallares
Hair: Elia Monvel
Makeup: Selina Lopez
Location: Bacara Resort & Spa Santa Barbara

At just 18 years old, Kathy Ireland had the planet’s attention. Her iconic 1989 Sports Illustrated cover remains the best selling swimsuit issue, ever. Yet for this savvy businesswoman, “shut up and pose” was never a fulfilling career description. Being a supermodel was merely a stepping stone to becoming a super-mogul. Tremendously successful, but uncompromising in her faith, Kathy Ireland’s ventures are blessed. Sometimes, it seems, nice girls finish first.

A little primer: Launched in 1993, kathy ireland Worldwide (kiWW) is the 23rd most powerful licensed brand in the world, ranking higher than Liz Claiborne, Tommy Bahama and Polo Ralph Lauren. From bedding to books, candles to ceiling fans, fabrics, fashions, flooring, flowers and furniture, this $1.4 billion design empire sells 15,000 products in 30 countries around the globe. No wonder the Associated Press called Kathy “a best friend to busy moms,” and Fairchild Publications named her one of the 50 Most Influential People in Fashion. Kathy now resides in Southern California, gracefully balancing the roles of wife, mother, Sunday school teacher, spokesperson, volunteer and Chief Designer and CEO of kiWW.

As Kathy embarks on her first high fashion shoot in over a decade, we celebrate her achievement, her God-centered reality and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. We’re at the beautiful Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara, California. The sun shines brilliantly. We spend hours talking, really getting to know Kathy as a person. The whole day feels enchanted. Despite her high level of celebrity and entrepreneurship, Kathy’s character, kindness and humility astound us. The word “integrity” comes to mind. She continually deflects credit to those around her (“We’re more than a team, we’re a family”), praises God when talking about any success (“Love Jesus first, and the rest falls into place”) and measures her victories not in terms of dollars, nor market share, nor fame, but in the quality of her relationships (“Success is all about people”). Other thoughts and insights:
Setting Priorities:
For me, success is keeping my priorities in order – and my priorities are faith and family.

Defining Success:
I view success differently from how it’s sometimes communicated in the world. I don’t view success in terms of dollars and cents. It’s about relationships.

Her Most Important Relationship:
My most important relationship is with God. I’m just so grateful God is full of grace, forgiveness and love. That relationship is critical for me for a successful life, despite my many shortcomings. When I’m not putting God first, everything else pretty much falls apart, and I’m a walking disaster. I can really make a good mess out of things when my priorities are out of whack.

On Being Human:
Life is hard. It’s not easy. People are going through so many struggles. As humans, we try to change people all the time, and we really can’t. It doesn’t work.

On Diversity:
Everybody is different, and responds differently to different things, and that’s a good thing. It should be celebrated. We’re not all supposed to fit one mould. The Throne of God is made up of every tribe, tongue and nation.

Business Relationships:

As far as our business goes and our products go, our greatest key to success is the relationship we enjoy with our customer. It’s a real relationship, and I’m grateful primarily to the women out there who turn down the noise of stereotyping and embrace our brand.

Thoughts on the “Supermodel” tag:
It’s very kind when people use the term “supermodel,” but I know I was okay. Some of the publications were super, but I wasn’t all that super. I’m not giving false humility here. I never felt comfortable earning my living off how others perceived I looked.

On her start in the Modeling Industry:
I did enter the modeling industry as a businessperson. I worked since I was four years old. Modeling wasn’t part of my plan, but this was an opportunity to maybe save enough money to go to college or start my own business.

Building a Team:
A lot of people in the modeling industry were spending money on cars and clothes. I was investing in people. I put a little team together. I’ve always enjoyed sports so I liked the idea of working with a team. I am aware of my strengths and am painfully aware of my weaknesses. Some people can do everything well. I’m not one of those people.

Launching her Brand:
We began our brand in 1993 with a pair of socks. Our customer is too savvy to buy a product just because it has my name on it. It has to be right. It has to serve her. We showed we could bring design, innovation and fashion to something as basic as a pair of socks. Not just put my name on it, but really be involved every step of the way. And if women embraced that, it would be a really solid foundation. We might be on to something.

Overcoming the Doubters:
People said: “You can’t start a brand with a pair of socks. Don’t even think about it! You need to break into retail with swimwear.” I wasn’t looking to “break in,” but seek a real relationship with our customer, and swimwear would have been too obvious with my modeling background.

Her Business Advice:
Success is all about people. Businesses are made up of people. In taking the time to get to know them, you’re going to have differences. Our team is wonderfully diverse, and I love that; it makes for really great debates, different ideas and keeps it interesting – causes us to think deeply about things.

Making Mistakes:
I get humbled every single day. Life is a learning process. It’s a journey. I don’t know how many mistakes I’ve made, and continue to make.

On Motherhood:
When our son was born, my life changed so dramatically. I quickly learned how underserved busy moms are. It’s life changing. Taking a shower becomes a luxury. Finding solutions for families – especially busy moms – really focused my mission.

On Children:
If there was one thing I could impart to my kids, it’s that personal, intimate relationship with God. Their own relationship, not mine. It has to be their own faith.

Her Faith:
I became a Christian at 18. My goal is that as I mature in my faith, my will would be more and more in line with God’s will. I can be really stubborn, and when my will is in conflict with God, my prayer is that I would submit. It’s not easy. It’s a daily challenge.

On Stereotypes:
People like to put Christians in boxes. We do it to each other. People hear one thing about you, and they assume all these other things. I’m too odd shaped – I don’t fit into anyone’s stereotype!

Balancing Christianity & Business:
It’s a fine line. I’m mindful. I sell things. I never want to exploit my faith. I would never want to put that message out there as a way to get people to buy our products. I’m not ashamed of my faith. I’ll share it with anybody who wants to hear about it.

Working Conditions:
My dad worked in labor relations with farm workers. We grew up attending Cesar Chavez rallies in Tijuana. So how people are treated has always been far more important than profit margin. We began surprise factory inspections, and you learn a lot when you show up unexpectedly. That’s a practice we continue.

When it comes to Core Values:
How are people being treated? What’s the integrity? Are you going to cut corners here to save a dollar? The factories, the people driving the trucks, the sales teams, the executives. A lot of people don’t want to work with us because we are so “hands on.” Some would like me to go back to my old job description: “shut up and pose.”

Favorite Quote?
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Philippians 4:13

What’s Next?
As far as our business goes, I have to listen to my boss. I have the toughest boss in the world. I love her. It’s the woman out there. She wants her solutions and she wants them now. Our customer tells us what her daily needs are. What’s next is continuing to listen to her, and to her direction.

Last Words of Advice?
Follow Jesus.