I walk into Nicole Leth’s downtown loft, and her cat Moose greets me. Pictures of Drake fill a cloudy backdrop in the living room.
She just finished a photo shoot for some of the shirts she recently created, including the pastel Drake T-shirt as part of her Sex & Ice Cream brand. It was just six months ago that this Kansas City Art Institute graduate was trying to solidify her brand. Now she’s here.
And it started with a breakup. Her first love crushed her heart. Instead of giving into depression, she dug deep into her imagination and poured her feelings into hand-drawn designs. She wanted to figure out who she was outside relationships. She wanted to express herself through clothes. But Nicole didn’t know how to sew.
At 18, she left her home in Des Moines, Iowa, for art school so she could learn how to turn her sketches into wearable pieces. Before she graduated last spring, her senior thesis-turned-fashion show, “Everything I Should’ve Said,” was a celebration of girl power.
One quilted tunic was embroidered with “In memory of when I cared.” Over the summer, Kansas City style queen Peggy Noland gave Nicole the opportunity to run a pop-up shop in her Los Angeles boutique.
“Nicole’s designs caught my eye before I had met her,” Peggy told me back then. “Her pop influence combined with her personal stories make for works that people notice and respond to. For any artist, that is a crucial element for growth, and her growth over the past year is inspiring. More importantly, Nicole has a sincere and passionate spirit that is contagious.”
Nicole is back from her California adventure. She works at Raygun, the quirky and cool T-shirt boutique part-time, and on her brand when she’s not there.
“The whole experience was really cool,” she tells me, sitting on her orange sofa, her smile painted purple, her hair dyed a striking silver. “I was overwhelmed being alone in Los Angeles, but working in the shop every day and meeting people really taught me how to handle myself professionally. I grew up kind of shy. The pop-up shop helped me learn the value in putting myself out there.”
And the 22-year-old is ready to nurture more than her brand. She wants to build a community.
“I relaunched my website (sexandicecream.net) because I want it to be just as much about the messages behind the clothes as it is about selling clothes,” Nicole says. “It’s one thing to be sitting in my studio thinking about these clothes and ideas, to have a fashion show and sell clothes that tell the story of how I felt after a breakup. But it’s about more than my story. It’s about giving other women and girls the power to tell their stories. It’s another thing to build that connection. It’s very important.”
She recently worked with the Young Women’s Resource Center in Des Moines to remind young ladies they are more than their hardships. She wants to do the same kind of outreach in Kansas City.
Time and time again she is shown the need for women to speak up and stand together.
A few weeks ago on Facebook, Nicole let her followers know about the alarming number of unsolicited sexual messages she gets from men. They even send naked pictures. Because she embraces her body, wears hot pants and owns her sexy, they ignorantly think they are entitled to her body. But women don’t do that to shirtless men walking down the street.
“How I look is not an invitation to disrespect me,” Nicole says. “Even my own mom asked, ‘Why don’t you cover up more if you don’t like getting hit on?’ But I have been treated like that even while wearing a sweater down to my ankles. So many people are lost in how they view women. There is a slippery slope of body-shaming. It’s a double standard.”
All these experiences are helping her grow as an artist and a woman, teaching her who she wants to be.
“The biggest challenge is finding balance and being taken seriously. I’m a professional. This is my career. I’m not a kid. I’m a woman, this is my art, and I just want to empower women. We are all equal.”
Equality, sex and ice cream? Get some.