Nicole Leth, a 23 year old living and working in Kansas City, founded Sex + Ice Cream at just 18, turning a devastating heartbreak into an empowering life event by creating a successful, independent company that was all hers. As a student at the Kansas City Art Institute, Nicole created her own clothing line that soon grew into a massive online following and a brand that radiates Nicole's positive attitudes and convictions. Sex + Ice Cream is located in Kansas City, MO at 1515 Walnut St. and stocks products and artwork by independent artists and creatives rarely found anywhere else. Since stocking Pink Things Mag Vol. I, we've spoken to Nicole about her journey and what it's like to be a boss bitch in a world that doesn't take brightly colored hair seriously.
Pink Things: Let’s start out with a little background. You are a college grad from KCAI, started your own business, bought your own car, and rent your own apartment all on your own before the age of 25. Can you give us a bit of your background when it comes to art, business, fashion, and your general life?
Nicole Leth: I was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, I went to Catholic School for 15 years, and then eventually went on to art school in Kansas City! Going to KCAI definitely amplified the influence of art in my life -- actually let me rephrase that -- during the 4 years I was at KCAI art WAS my life. I breathed, ate, slept, lived art ALL THE TIME. Beyond that, art school taught me what working hard really meant. I can credit my artistic intuition and hard working habits to the incredibly overwhelming, but effective curriculum at KCAI.
I grew up watching my parents own their own business and do everything themselves (my mom was a nurse and my dad was a doctor -- together they opened their own doctor’s office when they were only in their 30’s. As they got older my dad decided he wanted to take a break and focus on art so he started writing and publishing books and making jewelry.) . So it wasn’t ever really an absurd concept that I could do what I wanted to do on my own or make things happen on my own.
My dad passed away when I was 17 and that’s also something that has shaped me both in my personal life, creative life, and professional life. I was 17 years old and a senior in high school and after we lost him I knew that it wasn’t a question whether or not I would pursue my dreams -- I knew I would and I knew I would make the most of every day working towards every single thing I wanted for myself because for the first time in my life I realized how fleeting life really was and that you had to go after what you wanted before you couldn’t anymore. I’ve had that mentality since age 17 and I think that’s another major thing that has helped me along this journey with Sex + Ice Cream.
PT: You’ve always had a unique sense of style. It’s carefree, colorful, and creative. What started your fascination with fashion and what led you to starting to design your own fashion line? Who taught you how to sew?
NL: Like art, I was always interested in fashion. Art and fashion always went hand in hand for me. When I was younger, I was fascinated by the idea that fashion enabled you to be anyone you wanted to be just for a day and how it shaped your identity as a person. As I got older, I started to appreciate the narrative qualities of clothing. When I put on a shirt, I love to think about all the boys I’ve kissed while wearing that shirt, all the beers I’ve spilled on that shirt, and the places I’ve traveled in that shirt. I also think about what it means to wear an outfit that makes you feel good just for yourself.
I always had the wild and crazy idea that I wanted to start a clothing line. I took my first sewing class when I was 19 at KCAI. I got obsessed with fabric printing and imagery and motifs and started viewing the fabric I would make my clothes out of as my literal diary. My first collection I ever made had fabric that was printed with drawings of bras that were scanned directly from the pages of my diary.
PT: So we’ve heard the story about how Sex + Ice Cream came to be, but some of our readers haven’t, do you mind telling it again?
NL: The name Sex + Ice Cream comes from a relationship I was in when I was 18. I was dating a guy who I thought I was in love with, so this was a big deal for 18-year-old Nicole. The guy in question and I would always do this thing where we would eat a pint of ice cream after we had sex. I don’t know how it even started really, it was just something we started and kept doing. Long story short, the guy ended up cheating on me and breaking my heart. I was 18 and this was my first heartbreak and I was absolutely broken afterwards. I can remember wallowing for weeks and then one day I woke up and I was mad instead of sad and I had this fire in me.
The fire told me that I needed to do something to get revenge on the guy, because it wasn’t fair that he had treated me like this. I knew the best revenge I could ever get would be living a real fuckin’ awesome life and doing something really fuckin’ cool that I’d always wanted to do and showing him that I could live an amazing life without him. So I decided, on that day, while sitting in my hot pink childhood bedroom, that I would start a clothing line. And I would name that clothing line “Sex and Ice Cream” as a diss to him. It was at that moment all the pieces finally fell together and I finally got it.
The decision to start Sex + Ice Cream was me choosing my dreams over a boy for the first time in my life and believing that I could be more than just someone’s girlfriend for the first time in my life. It was really nothing about revenge and a lot about believing in myself and empowering myself. And it still is.
PT: You are your brand, and I draw a lot of connections between you and Sophia Amorouso, founder of Nasty Gal. Can you talk a little bit about your brand, how you turned your lifestyle into a business?
NL: Sophia is one of my biggest influencers, I’ve been a diehard Nasty Gal fan since their earliest days! And you’re so right, I am my brand. Nicole Leth and Sex + Ice Cream are the same thing. I think a large part of this is because of art school, yet again, and because I view Sex + Ice Cream as my art practice. Sex + Ice Cream reflects who I am as a person at any given moment in time. Through my garments you can tell what I am interested in, what music I am listening to, if I am in love or if I just got my heart broken, if I am happy or sad or if I miss somebody or something. Sex + Ice Cream is a means by which I record myself, my adolescence, things that make me smile. In a very literal sense: the clothes I make are my diary.
My imagery, designs, and brand are always evolving because I am always evolving. Sex + Ice Cream is my unapologetic autobiography of life as a 23-year-old woman who is trying to figure everything out.
When you get to know Sex + Ice Cream, you get to know me, and I think that’s why so many people relate to what I make. Sex + Ice Cream isn’t an elaborate corporate clothing label trying to capitalize on teen consumerism. Sex + Ice Cream is just a girl with a dream, a knack for fashion, and a lot of stories to tell.
PT: You’ve been invited to speak at some workshops for young ladies. Can you talk about that a little bit? How is it? What do you do there? How amazing are these ladies?
NL: I’ve been working a lot with the Young Women’s Resource Center in Des Moines, Iowa and it has been amazing through and through! I’ve done a series of “self empowerment workshops” with these girls (aged 4th grade -high school seniors). I’ll do presentations where I talk about Sex + Ice Cream and how I started it -- focusing a lot on the idea that I overcame the pain of a heartache by choosing to better myself -- and then I present the girls with shirts to decorate. I also talk about how we are more than anything in our lives that try to define us, hold us back, or undermine us. The shirts say “ I Am More Than _______” and I instruct the girls to think about anything or anybody in their life that has been stressing them out, making them sad, or failing to treat them in the ways in which they deserve to be treated. Its honestly the coolest thing to see the things those girls write down and then hear them talk about it. A lot of the time I’m amazed because so many of them seem so beyond their years.
PT: Can you tell us about a time when you were ridiculed or doubted about your abilities because you’re a young woman?
NL: The first thing that comes to mind was before I had even opened my shop and I was meeting with realtors searching for storefronts that would be a good fit with my vision. I met with a few different realtors. One woman laughed audibly at me the minute I walked into the meeting (I had blue hair at the time — I guess this was ‘appalling’ to her) and spent the next hour trying to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to afford any of her spots and/or wouldn’t be taken seriously with a store name like “Sex + Ice Cream”. She hadn’t even taken the time to research the business or gathered any financial reports to see what my sales actually were like. She told me she wouldn’t talk to me until I proved to her I had money and made the decision to change the name of my shop and she also made it clear that no other realtor in the city would allow me to lease a space. She kept looking me up and down and making comments like “it must be nice to be young and have mommy and daddy pay for your little business.”
I marched out of that meeting angry and frustrated beyond belief — this was the first time anybody had ever judged my business before they got to know it just because of who I was — and it was unbelievable to me how badly it seemed like older people didn’t want to see younger people succeed. Not even two days after I had that unfortunate meeting, I got a message from a friend that another storefront was going to be opening up in a better area downtown, so I jumped on it. I met with the landlords and they were excited, supportive, and receptive of Sex + Ice Cream. That space later became the very first Sex + Ice Cream store and gained local and national attention before I even opened my doors. As the underdog, you have the power to impress people and prove them wrong. That first realtor really screwed up when she pegged me as an entitled little girl with a joke clothing line that wasn’t worth her time. Maybe next time a young person approaches her about wanting to open up a cool new store in one of her buildings she’ll think twice before stereotyping them and trying to bully them away from their dreams.
PT: Tell us more about your brick and mortar shop!
NL: When I made the decision to make Sex + Ice Cream into a brick and mortar destination, I knew I wanted it to be 3 things.
1. I wanted it to be a place where I could sell all the things that I designed personally, even if sometimes these were things I just made at 2am in my bedroom on a whim and wanted to put out into the world in someway.
2. I wanted it to break away from the retail mold that every other shop I see these days is like — I wanted it to be a merging of art, fashion, and retail and I wanted customers to feel like they were walking into a still-life art installation every time they stepped through the doors. and lastly,
3. I wanted to curate my pieces alongside pieces by artists, designers, and brands that I had grown to love over the years.
I wanted to introduce people to products and brands that I hadn’t ever seen sold anywhere except for big cities, craft fairs, or online and that I believed in. I stock work made by some of my best friends and local artists, women run brands and designers from around the world, and makers that I’ve discovered via Instagram or by networking. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t sell out, I wouldn’t stock products that I didn’t believe in, and I definitely wouldn’t sell things that you could get at a dozen other local shops on the same street. When I shop for things for the shop I go into it with the mindset as if I’m shopping for myself. And I think that’s why it works; people understand that I’m not trying to sell them dumb shit to just make a few bucks and that I’m actually selling them things that I love.
PT: Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects? What's next for Nicole Leth?
NL: Working my ass off, bringing great new brands to the shop, opening more shops, designing new things for Sex + Ice Cream, and growing in any and every way that I can. As for new projects, I’m definitely working on a few things and they all have to do with opening up another Sex + Ice Cream shop in a new city that I love. :)
PT: I just have one more question for you to wrap up. If you had some advice for a young woman, personal, professional, artistic, or otherwise, what would it be?
NL: My advice is and always will be this:
When something bad happens to you, whether it be with your job, love life, etc, it is up to you to stop, think about what happening, and figure out how you can make that bad occurrence into something positive that you can use to empower yourself. Even if it’s just to chalk it up to a learning experience. For me, this was relevant with how I started my brand — taking the situation of a shitty breakup and transforming it into a means by which I was motivated to do something empowering for myself, like start Sex + Ice Cream. Or even today, when I encounter sexism/ageism/whatever in the professional world — to use those situations where people doubted me or wouldn’t help me or tried to deter me as fuel to work even harder. When you make the active decision to view a bad thing as something that you, yourself, have the power to personally transform into something to make yourself stronger, there is not one thing in this world that can stop you.
This interview was conducted via email by Sarah Sickles. It has been condensed and edited.