At age 4, she started selling “fashion rocks” with painted designs on them, and by age 7, she was crafting jewelry and handbags to sell at art fairs. Years later as internationally known model, Ireland made the record books for appearing in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue 13 consecutive times in the 1980s and ’90s. In 1993, she founded design and marketing firm Kathy Ireland Worldwide and has had a hand in several apparel, jewelry and home collections. So launching footwear is a natural progression.
“The dream of design has always been there [for me]. When I started as a model, I always knew I was supposed to be on the other side of the lens,” said Ireland. “We worked with names like Vera Wang, Fendi and Elizabeth Taylor. It caused me to look at everything, from fashion to business, with a new set of eyes.”
Now Ireland’s vision will materialize into a namesake footwear line, with a soft launch for fall ’14 and a full unveiling for spring ’15. The debut is part of a licensing deal with Royal Footwear & Accessories, for which Ireland was recently appointed chief designer. (The position includes overseeing design for other RFA licenses, including footwear for 385 Fifth and slippers for Isaac Mizrahi.)
“We’ve been trading inspiration back and forth, and I love working with the group,” Ireland said of RFA. “We pull some 24/7 weeks, but it keeps things interesting and us on our toes.”
As for her own shoes, Ireland said, “Our brand aesthetic is casual elegance, Hollywood chic and coastal Americana. Our designs are focusing on serving women in every area of their lives.”
The styles, priced from $50 to $150, will include both flexible insoles and lightweight outsoles. The soft launch will feature earthy colors and embossed details on boots, moccasins and slippers. For spring ’15, the collection will introduce sandals and dress styles.
Here, Ireland talks candidly about the value of a name and finding her shoe mentor in Mizrahi.
How has your background in fashion and design prepped you for this venture?
KI: In many ways. I spent years wearing shoes that were so extremely painful. I remember doing a photo shoot for Harpers Bazaar and taking a slip while running in heels. It has to be fashion first, but also having comfort that is ergonomically correct. We’re working on bringing fresh patterns, fabrics and colors, and using faux croc and kangaroo.
What inspired your first collection?
KI: It’s such a beautiful mosaic, how it all comes together. We were on a design trip in Europe — to Florence, Italy, and Rome. We were looking at palace textures and visiting museums. We listen to our customers about bringing fashion and comfort. Our message is to look and feel great. The most exciting [part] is when a woman slips on a shoe and you see her face light up. She loves the way it looks and realizes it feels good, too.
Your brand is named for you. Will the celebrity connection play an important role at the outset?
KI: Branding looks a lot like Hollywood, and there are some who look at our brand as a celebrity endorsement. Celebrity endorsements can work great, but that’s not what it’s about. Our brand is not about me; it’s about our customer. We have worked very hard to earn the trust of our customer. We have 42 team members, and every choice we make is [collaborative].
What has been your biggest lesson in designing shoes?
KI: I love every element of it, but sometimes I get impatient and I want it done now. There are processes, though, and it’s important that we do it correctly. Still, I’m reminded by our team how quickly we’re moving. From conception, a team member will take my sketch and refine it. We take our design trips and we’re bringing these wonderful raw materials to the finished products. I’m working on patience.
Who are your mentors in the footwear industry?
KI: Isaac [Mizrahi] is somebody I’ve known over the years, and he is amazing. When he and I get together, it has always been about shoes. It’s the first thing he notices when I walk in the room. He’s got such an eye. He is a man who truly loves and cares about women, and he puts himself in her shoes, literally. His excitement and passion are contagious.