By  on June 24, 2012

As chief designer and chief executive officer of the $2 billion Kathy Ireland Worldwide business, Kathy Ireland does not leave anything to chance.

Given that, she spent 30 minutes Thursday morning describing the details and inspiration for her latest bridal collection to 25 editors in New York. Dressed in a hot pink Diane von Furstenberg dress, Ireland spoke animatedly as models showed off her signature wedding gowns and special occasion dresses in the Mon Cheri showroom. Ireland repeatedly mentioned the influence of her friend and mentor Elizabeth Taylor. “She would pull out her private collection of jewels and it would put ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ to shame — just dazzling, spectacular.”

While noting the details of a bejeweled gown, Ireland said, “Elizabeth Taylor’s motto was, ‘Enough is never enough.’ That’s something she would get after me for. She would say, ‘You’re too timid in your choices for fashion and jewelry. Go bolder. Be bold.’”

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Afterward, Ireland spoke with WWD about her bold business plan. Sold in 30 countries in 50,000 doors, the Kathy Ireland Collection generates an estimated $2 billion in retail sales annually. In the months ahead, more products will be developed for babies, children and home — the latter accounts for about half of her business. Ireland said her 42-person staff (headed up by creative director Jon Carrasco) works very closely with licensors to ensure all parties are working with the same color palettes and themes for the brand’s 15,000 stockkeeping units.

“I don’t know of a manufacturer that does it all. We are a company all about solutions. I want to make my customers’ lives easier whether they are having a baby or baking a cake. They have different needs.”

As for whether Ireland plans to take her company public, she said, “I cannot imagine losing the control. My dad worked in labor relations, especially with farm workers, so that is very important to me. We do surprise factory visits. You learn a lot when you show up unexpected. If we want to give our banks a heart attack and walk away from millions because of factory safety measures, we can do that. So often Wall Street is looking for the quick numbers, we’re just not interested in that.”

As big as her business has become, Ireland said she has always favored affordable living. “When I was modeling, people used to say to me, ‘You’re so cheap. Why don’t you buy new clothes, a better car or pay for valet parking?’ That was never important to me. I have always been interested in the betterment of other people,” she said, adding that she will soon attend a conference about improving philanthropic efforts.

Ireland said she often does double duty while traveling. When she jets off to Dubai this fall to speak at Forbes Global CEO Conference, she will also use that excursion as a buying trip with her team. Indonesia and Israel are among the other places they have visited for inspiration, since an increasing number of brides are interested in having weddings with multicultural elements that are not necessarily their own. Ireland said she recently taped a segment for David Tutera’s “My Fair Wedding” where the bride wanted the entire wedding party in togas. “David said to her, ‘You really want to see your father in a toga?’” Ireland said. “Once she saw her father’s little hairy legs in a toga, she changed her mind.”

During her 15-year modeling career, Ireland tried to start a number of businesses, including beer-making. “I am a very bad cook. Someone gave me a cookbook and I made beer and it was really good. The second batch tasted more like a science project so I went back and tried making it again and again. Eventually I got it right but then I realized you have to love what you do. I just didn’t have a passion for beer.

“I was a pregnant, aging model sitting at my kitchen table and someone had offered me the opportunity to model a pair of socks. There weren’t many jobs coming in then,” she said. “So, I thought, ‘All right, how can we improve the design with the fit, wicking, adding cashmere or cotton?’” Her first partners, Moretz Mills’ John and Marilyn Moretz, understood that she was not interested in stamping her name on a pair of socks. “That job description was ‘Shut up and pose.’ I had moved away from that,” she said.

Asked if she sees herself as a role model in celebrity branding, Ireland said, “People who are far more famous have said to me, ‘I’ve been working really hard at this brand-building and I haven’t made a quick buck.’ Our team is all about sweat equity. Fame does not equate to profitability. You have to listen to your customers. My client is my boss. She lets me know what she most wants.”

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