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Where Kink Meets Cosmetics: The Story Behind New York Institution Ricky's

"It was the funniest thing in the world to see a customer buying a shampoo, a toothpaste, and a dildo. Where else are you going to find that?" Nowhere except the famous Ricky's NYC. We talked to the real life Ricky about how he started the quirky beauty store chain and what's up with that toothpaste tube logo.

If you live in New York City or have visited here at any time, chances are you've seen a Ricky's beauty store. It's one-stop shopping for fancy shampoo, Manic Panic, and dildos, and it's definitely a New York City institution.

I had the chance to sit down and chat with Ricky (yes, there's a real Ricky) Kenig, the chain's founder, and I had so many questions: Why sell sex toys? Why is the sign a toothpaste tube? What's with all the wacky costumes? He had answers for all of these questions and more.

Kenig's father owned a chain of health and beauty aid stores called Love in the 1970s and 1980s (the chain is now defunct), and Kenig worked at them throughout his childhood. "My father went to a salon around the corner that got a lot of recognition--it was called Vidal Sassoon--and he was the first one to carry items like Vidal Sassoon when it was a professional line," Kenig told me. "My dad created a nice little niche in the market and over the years it got stronger and stronger."

Kenig took that niche concept even further when he opened up his first store--it was originally called Ricky Love--in Greenwich Village in 1989. "At the time no one ever went down past 34th Street," Kenig said. But being in that location really helped shape what the chain would eventually become, because Kenig served the downtown denizens--mainly drag queens and fashion people--and their unique needs. Kenig worked in the store from open to closing and he got to know people like RuPaul (before she was RuPaul) and fashion photographer Steven Meisel, who came in with an unusual request.

Back then, photoshopping a fashion spread was an onerous task, and Meisel asked Kenig if he could get any bobby pins that weren't shiny, because they had to airbrush them out of the photos. Such a thing didn't exist, so whenever Meisel needed them, Kenig would make them by hand for Meisel using sandpaper. Eventually that led to the creation of tons of other specialty bobby pins, and now hair tools are a Ricky's signature. Kenig counts many makeup artists and hair stylists as friends, and they've all given their input over the years, which is why you can find all sorts of niche items there, like the clips they use backstage on models' hair that prevent creasing.

And what's the deal with the psychadelic tube logo? The logo is a product of its time and original location--it's all '80s club scene. Kenig calls it a "magic tube," and the original one on his first store was covered in metallic sequins on which he shined a spotlight to draw a attention to his very narrow storefront.

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Then there's the tagline: "Looking good, feeling good." You might be tempted to chalk that one up to 1980s pop psychology, but it's actually a variation on Ricky's first tagline which was: "When you’re looking good, I’m eating good." True story. He even had the sign made. "But we never put the sign up," Kenig said. "That seemed cocky in case I wasn’t successful." Shortly afterward Kenig decided to change it to the the less cocksure one it is today.

As Ricky's gained more of a cult following, he started to add adult novelties. "Originally when I was only a few stores, I wanted to do items for bachelorette parties. Back in the late '80s and early '90s that stuff was only in sex shops. Remember we didn’t have the internet back then," he said. "It was the funniest thing in the world to see a customer buying a shampoo, a toothpaste, and a dildo. Where else are you going to find that?" He said he originally got some pushback from certain communities, but then, before he knew it, certain landlords actually started encouraging him to stock more of the sexy-time stuff.

Kenig has a pretty hands-off policy when it comes to his "back rooms." "We don’t want to tell customers about anything because then we’re invading their privacy to a degree. I think that’s what they do like about coming to Ricky’s," Kenig said. "The only thing we question is their age. But they don’t want a person there watching them or saying, ‘Can I help you?’"

And finally, there are the costumes. This is a direct result of catering to the gay community right from the beginning. "Gay pride was our main thing. Halloween wasn’t so big when I started in 1989," Kenig said. "There were so many cross dressers, so many men in drag. They didn’t have a lot of places to go. That’s how I got into eyelashes. I started out doing wigs, eye lashes, black lipstick, black nail polish, a lot of glitter and boas." He said a "young girl" came into the store in the early '90s and wanted to buy nine pink wigs--it turned out to be L'il Kim, who used them for a music video. Novelty wigs and costumes then became a huge chunk of the business.

As adults started dressing up more for Halloween the costume side of the business really grew, but it's taken a big hit in recent years thanks to Hurricane Sandy (which disrupted Halloween celebrations last year) and the Internet. Kenig's unsure of the direction of that business, but it's definitely not as robust as it used to be.

Kengig's cosmetic business has also cooled down a bit, thanks to a slew of new beauty competitors like Sephora and Duane Reade's new concept stores. "Sephora’s at a whole other level. I don’t think anyone can compete with Sephora," Kenig said. But he's not discouraged. The brand continues to release a lot of private label specialty items (be sure to check out the new nail polish line and the super luxurious makeup brushes), and may even have expansion plans (they already have a store in Miami). "I think competition helps you identify who you are and if you know what the fuck you’re doing. It’s a test!" Kenig said. "I prefer that more than I prefer things going smoothly."