A few years ago, it looked like the ugly Christmas sweater might just be a passing fad. But now, with the sweaters showing up everywhere from office parties to family gatherings, that trend is starting to look a lot more like a tradition. This year, ugly Christmas have become more commercial than ever, with big retailers and even professional sports teams getting in on the action. It's not just the big guys, though, some small Canadian businesses are also seeing big sales from ugly sweaters.
"It's a good business to be in," says Tyler Schwartz, who co-owns Oakville-based Christmas kitsch retailer Retro Festive. "It's showing no signs of wavering."
Since Mr. Schwartz started selling new ugly Christmas sweaters five years ago, sales have nearly doubled each year, reaching almost 10,000 sweaters last year.
Mr. Schwartz is in Christmas business year-round, selling pop-culture themed holiday items on his website but most of his business comes around this time of year, when he opens seasonal locations at the Toronto Christmas market and an Oakville warehouse.
While the growing interest has led to more competition, Mr. Schwartz says he's of the opinion that "a rising tide raises all boats."
He says that much of the demand for ugly sweaters is driven by nostalgia.
"It's the tongue-in-cheek nature," he says, coupled with memories of moms and teachers who wore similar sweaters sincerely. He also sees it as part of a larger "trend of dressing up in general," he says. "Halloween has never been bigger."
Ajà Besler has a similar take. "It's the one time it's cool to be tacky," says the self-described "avid thrift store shopper."
While she says the ugly Christmas sweater trend was originally about finding sweaters in thrift stores, that's getting harder.
"I haven't seen more than one at Value Village in the past couple years," says the Ottawa resident.
This year, she's seeing more pop-culture themed sweaters this year, particularly "geeky" ones referencing things like Internet memes.
For Ms. Besler the appeal of ugly Christmas sweaters is more personal.
"I've always been buying really ugly things ever since I was in high school, as a way to rebel against my parents wanting me to look nice," she says.
New ugly Christmas sweaters might be growing in popularity, but they're just not the same as the old ones, says Cat Shanahan, who sells vintage clothes online.
"I think the new mass-produced ugly Christmas sweaters have totally missed the mark," she says. Not does she think the quality is lower, when it comes to ugliness, she says "they're really watered down."
For the most part, Ms. Shanahan, sells more fashionable women's clothes through Aiseirigh Vintage, her store on e-commerce site Etsy. Her husband, Craig Alcantara runs another vintage store on the site, EmmettBrown, which sells men's items, including ugly Christmas sweaters.
The popularity of ugly Christmas sweaters has helped the couple take their business to the next level. They're now planning to launch their own independent e-commerce site under the name Vanguard Vintage.
"Every generation has added something to the Christmas cannon," Ms. Shanahan says. "This is our new Christmas tradition."
And, it's one that "has a great spin on social media," she says.
For Ms. Shanahan part of the appeal of vintage is that supply is limited and will eventually run out. "Scarcity drives the market," she says.
And when it comes to ugly Christmas sweaters, she's not the only one hunting for them at warehouse and estate sales.
"We search all over the country for them," says Maggie Stowe the general manager at Bang-On T-Shirts and Used House of Vintage, two small Vancouver-based chains that have stores in several Canadian cities.
Ms. Stowe also sells the sweaters at several seasonal stands in downtown Vancouver.
Last year, the sweaters were so popular, "we found ourselves selling out of them," she says.
At Bang-On, which specializes in custom t-shirts, Ms. Stowe sells new reproductions alongside vintage sweaters.
"I think it's a separate thing," she says. While the vintage sweaters play to nostalgia and fun, she says the new ones are more of a "fashion thing."
It's not just retailers who a turning those new sweaters into sales.
Halifax-based Rockworldeast designs and screen prints new ugly Christmas sweaters, selling them to other Canadian retailers through its online wholesale business.
"It's a big deal for us," says Tim Crow, the company's president. "We've been doing it for a few years and our sales have grown from being good to being great."
Mr. Crow, who also sells directly to consumers online and at a Halifax store, says he got into the ugly sweater business three years ago, when one of his employees was looking to wear one to a party.
"It went really well, it's our smash hit," Mr. Crow says of that sweater, which featured a pair of humping reindeer.
He says he gets "a lot of orders from office groups," particularly in the United States.
"They're an adult way of celebrating and enjoying Christmas," he says, adding the tongue-in-cheek aspects allow wearers to show off their sense of humour.
But with increasing competition, "we're going to need to up our game next year," Mr. Crow says and that means more new designs.
While the sweaters themselves might be a novelty, for Retro Festive's Mr. Schwartz "this is serious business. It's certainly fun but it's serious."
What makes for the best ugly Christmas sweater?
- Go big or go home: “The general rule is the more the better,” says Tyler Schwartz of Retro Festive. He says stuff that’s glued or sewn on is good have as well as tinsel. It should look like “Christmas just threw up on you.” Though, Mr. Schwartz says, “ugly is in the eye of the beholder.”
- Gaud is good: For Ajà Besler, who’s been a fan of ugly Christmas sweaters since before it was a trend, “It kind of depends … It’s got to have a festive side but a really gaudy tack side.”
- Red, white and green: Cat Shanahan of Aiseirigh Vintage says “the ideal Christmas sweater for me is green, red and white.” And if Santa Claus is on the sweater he should have “a beard that’s actually a beard,” she says and “white cotton balls on his head.”
- Krazy for kitschy: Craig Alcantara says he prefers a “kitschy scene,” something like “two kids looking out on a snow filled scene with Santa,” he says, and a “reindeer grazing nearby.”
- United States of Christmas: Maggie Stowe of Bang-On and Used House of Vintage says “the more ornaments, the more textures the better.” Her personal favourites come from the U.S. and incorporate patriotic themes as well as Christmas imagery.