When offered a chance to chat with Kathy Ireland, we thought, “why would Sierra Club Green Home want to talk to a Sports Illustrated cover girl?” To our surprise, Ms. Ireland has quietly become a clothing and furniture designer and built a $1.4 billion a year business. And that sustainability is a core value of her vast enterprise.
Those of you over 40 surely have seen Ireland’s willowy, shapely physique on at least one of the three covers — including the bestselling 25th anniversary edition — of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She appeared in the SI cheesecake magazine for 13 consecutive years, which must be some kind of record. Ireland began modeling while attending high school in Santa Barbara, and says it was “good money for not a lot of work.”
She prefers to be thought of as a designer and businesswoman first, an author second (she has written three bestselling children’s books and two self-help books, most recently Real Solutions for Busy Moms: Your Guide to Success and Sanity) with acting and modeling a distant third. Ireland is also a wife since 1988 and mother of three. In 2004, Inc. Magazine named her one of the top five celebrity entrepreneurs, mentioned in the same breath with Paul Newman, Magic Johnson, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Francis Ford Coppola. She believes in giving back, and has numerous philanthropic credentials including pro bono work for March of Dimes, PTA, Feed the Children and City of Hope.
Ireland does not just lend her name to products for a fee. She is a real designer and is intimately involved with products that bear her name, from raw materials through distribution. Her first big success was a line of socks (yes, socks) for K-Mart which ended up selling over 100 million pairs. That led to a series of other apparel and furniture lines, all of which are closely supervised by Ireland and must be produced using sustainable materials and processes.
Ireland’s customers are basically the moms of America. She encourages them to think sustainably. Her furniture products are recyclable, and she uses only faux furs and skins to respect the animal kingdom. One of her furniture lines is made from sustainably harvested woods from Africa. A genuine outdoorsy type, Ireland was a long-time Sierra Club member and used to go on club hikes with her parents as a teenager.
Ireland faced obstacles on her way to mogul-dom. “Rejection is a gift, it gives you perseverance,” she says. “Modeling was good training that way because rejection is part of the job.” Not surprisingly, she had more than one instance of not being taken seriously as a designer or businesswoman because of the stereotype associated with modeling.
With more than 15,000 products including furniture, clothing, linens, candles and more, Ireland’s company is one of the few highly-profitable sustainable companies in America (it is rumored that Ireland personally hauls in over $10 million a year). Plus, she has scandal-free record as wife, mother, philanthropist and corporate do-gooder.
Not bad for a cover girl, eh?