Mindi Kahn received an early Christmas present Nov. 20, the first day her new pop-up, That Ugly Christmas Sweater Store, opened in the Inwood Village shopping center near University Park.
A shopper came in and purchased not one, not two, but three dozen of the gaudy blends of Santas and sequins that are Kahn’s holiday-themed store’s specialty. “She was taking them with her to Colorado where she was having party and supplying the sweaters,” Kahn says.
Across town at Jeremy Turner’s Ugly Christmas Sweater Shop in east Dallas, which threw open its doors Nov. 21, he has had customers come from as far as Austin.
In Fort Worth, Stacy Anderson’s online site, TheUglySweaterShop.com, receives orders from across the planet, including Australia, where some celebrants throw “Christmas in July” festivities when it’s cold and sweater-worthy in the Southern Hemisphere.
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These are just three of the local incarnations of the seasonal sartorial trend that, in the last decade, has moved from fad to a veritable industry. Ugly Christmas sweaters, and the parties in honor of them, have become as much a part of the holiday season as reindeer, eggnog and credit-card debt.
What used to be left to the province of Goodwill, The Salvation Army and thrift shops is now in the realm of corporate America. The NBA has gotten into the act by selling sweaters where you can simultaneously show off team pride and lack of color coordination. Not to mention such retailers as Kohl’s, Nordstrom and Target, who all carry these beloved fashion blights. And there are now ugly sweaters for everything from Star Wars to The Big Lebowski.
A big success story from the reality series Shark Tank, in which wise men and women of the business world invest in hungry start-ups, has been Tipsy Elves, a firm that has turned Christmas cashmere into ka-ching. In 2013, the show’s Robert Herjavec invested $100,000 in the company, and a year later he told CNBC that of all the companies in which he had invested on the show, it was his most successful.
There are now even Ugly Sweater Runs in major cities every year, though none locally for the remainder of 2015.
One of the charms of the current holiday movie The Night Before is that stars Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt sport especially unattractive holiday sweaters throughout much of the movie.
And, of course, Dec. 18 is officially National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day.
“It’s just so fun and light. It’s such a silly thing, ” Turner says of the appeal. “It doesn’t have one age group. Kids are into it. Old people are into it, and everybody in between.”
Mo’ sweater blues
The fascination with ugly sweaters seems to have its roots not just in the attics, basements and thrift stores of America — where the original versions of these brightly designed garments that Grandad or Grandma wore were considered just “sweaters,” not “ugly sweaters” — but also in the character Cliff Huxtable’s choice of colorful apparel on The Cosby Show in the ’80s and Chevy Chase’s wardrobe in the 1989 film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
The word “ugly” may be a misnomer. “I believe that what makes a sweater ‘ugly’ isn’t what we would call ‘ugly’ in the traditional a sense of the word,” Anderson says via email. “It isn’t because it is a horrible shade of brown or has a hole in it. The words ‘gaudy,’ ‘busy’ or ‘loud’ come to mind for me.”
Still, what had been consigned to the fashion dustbin would, by the early 2000s, be something that young people, high on irony and Christmas cheer, would seek out.
Yet what Time in 2011 said was “bigger than ever, but in a very hipstery, oh-so-ironic way” would, by 2014, be assailed by The Atlantic, which said, “A garment for which you have shelled out $65-plus-shipping may be ugly, but is no longer fully ironic.”
The Guardian went even deeper, saying that “the Ugly Christmas Sweater is a not-so-subtle way to both mock the holiday of Christmas itself — and to belittle those who wear such sweaters in earnest.”
But that’s certainly not how most who participate in it view it. They see it as a bonding experience that goes beyond the usual mall shopping, something to bring a smile to someone in the middle of a harried time.
“A lot of times people come in [the store] in groups and they just have fun shopping,” says Turner. “I saw a family come in the other day and only the mom wanted a Christmas sweater but they were having fun just shopping with her.”
Kahn agrees. “There’ve been quite a few people who come in and want their whole family — sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles — to get in so the whole group will be able to wear the sweaters for a family picture.”
Fad or forever?
However, there is concern that now that the major chains — aka Big Sweater — are involved, some of the charm may unravel.
“I think the true vintage sweaters or theme sweaters that you just know someone cherished — whether it be a cat lady sweater or one celebrating corgis or unicorns — have a certain kitsch factor you just can’t fake,” Anderson says. “Companies are trying to capture that same spirit by making purposely ‘ugly’ sweaters now, and they are popular, but it just doesn’t feel the same as discovering an unexpected gem that you know at one point was actually loved intentionally, rather than ironically.”
In fact, a couple of the larger companies, in their quest for Christmas cool, enraged consumers this year with ugly sweaters that some consider offensive. Target and Nordstrom found themselves in hot water, the former over a sweater that proclaimed “OCD — Obsessive Christmas Disorder,” and the latter for a Hanukkah sweater for women emblazoned with the words “Chai Maintenance.”
Some thought the former trivialized a serious condition, while the latter played off a negative stereotype.
Anderson says the market may be getting more saturated, as this may be the first year since she’s been in business — she has been selling clothing online since 2000 and via a website since 2008 — that she may not see a sales increase. “Back in 2009, very few companies were making ugly Christmas sweaters, but look around us now. They are everywhere. I even saw some for sale at a grocery store the other day.”
But others see it differently. After all, Dallas now has two specialty, pop-up brick-and-mortar retailers. Besides, for those who may be tired of ugly Christmas sweaters, there are now ugly Christmas suits which a company called Shinesty will gladly sell you for upward of $99.99.
“I don’t see it slowing down,” says Kahn, who has been in the wholesale clothing business for 15 years and worked with Turner before opening her That Ugly Christmas Sweater Store this year. “This year, we are wishing we had more Hanukkah sweaters. It’s morphing into other religions.”
Turner, who used to run a mobile vintage clothing store and has been operating his Ugly Christmas Sweater Shop for the last three seasons, agrees.
“The trend started in the early 2000s with college kids … and it’s been going strong for the last five years or so,” he said. “I don’t see any sign of it going away.”
Where to buy
The Ugly Christmas Sweater Shop
- 6333 E. Mockingbird Lane, Dallas
- Open through Dec. 26
- Sweaters range $11.99-$50
That Ugly Christmas Sweater Store
- 5450 W. Lovers Lane (in the Inwood Village shopping center), Dallas
- Open through Dec. 27
- Sweaters range $10-$48
Prices range $18-$50
Most department stores also sell Christmas sweaters. A sampling of price ranges: Target, $19.60-$35; Nordstrom, $30-$55; Kohl’s, $13.99-$67.99; Wal-Mart, $10-$89.99.