Kathy Ireland, Model Turned Mogul

The '80s icon is now a savvy businesswoman who created her own brand empire.

April 12, 2012— -- Kathy Ireland was an 1980s icon, one of the most famous faces – and bodies – of the era. Now, as Forbes recently put it, the Supermodel is now a Supermogul, CEO of a worldwide retail empire estimated to be worth some $350 million.

Ireland started as a swimsuit model, featured in 13 consecutive "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit issues. Her first cover, the 25th anniversary edition, remains the magazine's best-selling swimsuit issue ever.

Now she is the entrepreneur behind the camera lens, lending her name to about 15,000 different products, and was estimated to take in $2 billion in retail revenue last year, making her an even bigger licensor than Martha Stewart.

"The only thing Martha and I have in common is that we both used to model," Ireland said. "Martha Stewart is extremely talented. Her designs are picture perfect. Our philosophy is life is messy, and rather than being afraid of those messes we design products that work the way we live."

Ireland's postmodeling career has had some typical milestones. Like others formerly in the modeling business, she tried acting, playing a female football player in the 1991 film "Necessary Roughness," and released a workout video. She also had a brief turn on the hit ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" a few years ago.

But it's in the business world where Ireland, 49, has truly made an impact. Her business is licensing and marketing products. Her company, kathy ireland Worldwide, doesn't make anything, but they make money from everything they sell. There are now Kathy Ireland dishes, crystal, tables, carpets, rugs, lamps, floor tiles, window replacements and furniture, to name a few. Her latest venture is kathy ireland Weddings by Mon Cheri.

"Our mission began with finding solutions for families, especially busy moms," said Ireland, a mother of three. "We've expanded it to finding solutions for people in love and serving brides and finding solutions for people in business."

It's a retail empire Ireland launched 20 years ago with socks. The former swimsuit model said starting out with her own line of swimsuits would have been "too obvious."

"I was actually offered the opportunity to model a pair of socks and it was at a time when not a lot of job offers were coming my way," she said. "I was an aging model, pregnant, at my kitchen table and my first response was, 'No thank you,' but I knew I could use the money."

So instead of modeling socks, she went into business with her own brand.

"People said it was stupid," Ireland said. "They laughed in our faces, 'You can't start a brand with a pair of socks. It's never been done!'"

Later, billionaire Warren Buffet advised her to go into home furnishings, and she started with a line of rugs.

"He said, 'fashion and apparel is constantly changing, but in home it's more consistent,'" Ireland said. "I took that advice and I ran with it."

Elizabeth Taylor eventually became another famous mentor to Ireland, who said she met the Hollywood star after simply picking up the phone and calling her.

"I took a deep breath, picked up the phone and I asked if I could be mentored by her," Ireland said. "I was so nervous. I was so scared... [but] she said, 'I would love that. Let us do it.'"

The two became close friends, so much so, that when Taylor died, she left Ireland several paintings, including an Andy Warhol, as well as her lifetime achievement Oscar. Ireland said Taylor helped her find her voice, trust her sense of style and pay attention to detail.

"[Taylor] would take a look at piece of jewelry and she would turn it in the back, and maybe you think, 'Well, nobody is going to see the back,'" Ireland said. "No, no, no the woman wearing it will see it and she will know and it matters."

It's that passion for detail and love for design that Ireland now incorporates into her business. She said she doesn't just rubber-stamp the products that carry her name. She and her tight-knit team are actively involved in everything from design to marketing the products.

"When I used to model, the job description is 'shut up and pose,'" she said. "There are people today who would really like me to go back to that old job description and 'just shut up and pose.'"

But those days are over for Ireland, and there is no going back.

"I always knew I belonged on the other side of the lens," she said.