Ugly sweaters go from back of the closet to star of the party

Even coaches have joined the trend. Louisville coach Jeff Walz donned his Cardinals sweater in a game against Old Dominion earlier this month.
Even coaches have joined the trend. Louisville coach Jeff Walz donned his Cardinals sweater in a game against Old Dominion earlier this month. Associated Press

If you have been invited to an ugly Christmas sweater party – which is likely these days – you have some decisions to make.

You could go the traditional route and rifle through the thrift store racks for a $5 itchy wool monstrosity that someone’s grandmother wore.

You could go to Target, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, H&M, Kmart or pretty much any other mass-market retailer and find garishly jolly sweaters made just with your party in mind.

You could uglify your own sweater using pompoms, snowflakes, beads and other items found in the Ugly Christmas Sweater Kit – available widely at $29.

Or you could don your team colors in officially licensed ugly sweaters from the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB or NCAA ($60), new this year.

Ugly Christmas sweaters, once to be avoided and later an ironic celebration of forced holiday merriment, are now the theme of parties, athletic events and holiday one-upmanship.

Say what you will about whether their ubiquity has dimmed their appeal, the spreading popularity has driven retailers large and small to invest in knitted atrocities and inspired entrepreneurial ventures.

Chicagoan Joey Dunne, 34, is operating two Christmas Sweater Depot pop-up stores this season, peddling vintage sweaters and hand-embellishing them for maximum hideousness for an added fee. He aspires to open a series of locations nationally, becoming “the Spirit Halloween of the ugly Christmas sweater,” he said, referring to the popular Halloween pop-up chain.

While most people shop at his store when they have a party to go to, he said people increasingly are buying the sweaters for everyday use.

“It’s just getting pretty socially acceptable,” he said.

Some holiday sweater veterans say that as the concept has gone mainstream, pure ugliness is no longer the goal.

Dan Steindl, manager of Ragstock, a thrift and novelty store, said the trend is shifting from buying the most revolting sweater to those that fit well and match the rest of people’s outfits.

“Since it is more fashionable now to go to these parties, they want to actually look good at the party,” Steindl said.

At Ragstock, which has more than 15,000 vintage holiday sweaters in stock at one location and 8,000 in another, Christmas merchandise outsells Halloween items, Steindl said. Sweater prices range from $21 to $75.

Anna Howe and her college friends in San Diego threw their first ugly sweater party in 2008, when they were working jobs that didn’t allow them to leave campus for the holidays. Nearly 1,000 people showed up, she said, sparking an annual tradition that in 2011 they decreed National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day, or NUCSD, which takes place the second Friday of December. Howe estimated that 5 million people would participate this year, based on traffic to the NUCSD website and corporate sponsorships.

Why ugly sweaters are so hot right now is anyone’s guess.

Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, noted that the apparel industry offered so little that was new and different this year that ugly sweaters may feel like a creative outlet. Some people buy them as collectibles, she added. And, they make people happy.

“Everybody could use a laugh,” she said. “The world is so incredibly serious.”

Whatever the reason, they have been good for business.

Chicago-based Groupon has sold 40,000 ugly sweaters this season, 10 times more than last year, said Chris Shields, senior marketing manager for Groupon Goods, the deal company’s product arm.

Sports-themed sweaters, which Groupon sold at their full $59.99 price, were among the top sellers during Black Friday weekend, with the NFL line selling out in a day, Shields said.

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