Kathy Ireland Terry Lundgren

TUCSON, Ariz. — Kathy Ireland pivoted from fashion model to selling socks in a move that earned criticism from some, but she’s having the last laugh as sole owner of a $2 billion business.

The chair, chief executive officer and chief designer of Kathy Ireland Worldwide capped the University of Arizona’s Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing’s annual conference Friday with a talk on how she grew her company into the 26-year-old behemoth that includes apparel, accessories, home, pet products and FinTech. There’s also interest in entertainment. But it all started with a commodity product she was asked to help sell.

“I was an aging, pregnant model at my kitchen table and, to tell you the truth, I was offered the opportunity to model this pair of socks,” Ireland said of the business’ start. “We didn’t even know if they were going to use my face but it was a job and it was a time when not a lot of job offers were coming my way…so we started with a pair of socks. Some said it was counterintuitive. Some said it was stupid.…We wanted to build a real brand. Something that was not dependent on any little smidgen of celebrity I might have had in the last century. That’s why it was a lowercase ‘k’ and a lowercase ‘i.’ It’s not about me. It’s about the customer.”

The socks ended up being a boon and doing better than what had been expected.

Criticism about starting with socks was just one hurdle, but growing the business has been a series of lessons learned from challenges faced.

When Kmart’s 1992 bankruptcy hit, Ireland recalled the day she got the call from her bankers who set up a lunch to deliver the implications of that news to her and her team. They shared with her the reality that she and her partners were personally responsible if things didn’t work out with the retailer, the company’s main door at the time.

“What a powerful lesson that was,” Ireland recalled of that period.

The brand stuck with Kmart but she likened that point in time to starting all over with new debt.

And although the business has been around for 26 years, Ireland still compares it to a young company as it constantly looks to category and industry expansion. Brand dilution is something the ceo said she’s constantly mindful of in terms of ensuring it doesn’t happen but also making sure being overly cautious doesn’t stop her from making decisions that allow the business to grow.

“I think one of my biggest mistakes early on was that fear and allowing that fear to stop me,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t want to grow too quickly and I never want to react too quickly, but that fear kept me from growing [in the beginning.]”

She pointed to the leverage and voice that can come from being a larger business, particularly as it relates to everything from human rights to labor relations.

“As I’ve gotten older, there have been so many lessons. So many lessons I’ve learned the hard way and for many years we were able to build our brand beneath the radar,” Ireland said. “As a private person, a private company, that really suited me fine. Forbes and the media outed our brand. They changed it and it forced me to step outside of my shy and selfish shell and connect with others, recognizing what a blessing it is to be exposed to needs that are so much bigger than us and opportunities that are so much bigger than us.”

One aspect of that is her company’s focus on its manufacturing and retail partnerships, aligning itself with businesses sharing the same set of core values with Kathy Ireland Worldwide when it comes to how workers are treated or philanthropic efforts.

As for what’s next, the business seems to only just be getting started.

“We always want to learn. We always want to grow, to do better,” Ireland said of the future. “We want to work in areas that have not yet been invented or thought of so it keeps it exciting.”