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Ugly Christmas sweaters: How an 'excuse to be silly' went trendy

12/19/2014 12:00 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST
In the festive world of ugly Christmas sweaters, nothing is too extreme.

Want a sweater with tinsel or twinkle lights? No problem. Just tack the extra sparkle on yourself.

Or maybe you want to celebrate with 1,200 folks decked in itchy holiday knitwear that will never rival designs by Chanel or Stella McCartney? Check out the party at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver tonight.

From coast to coast, a seasonal sartorial trend that was once the domain of shoppers hunting the bargain bins and hipsters looking for a little festive irony has gone decidedly mainstream.

One Ontario outlet is expecting to sell at least $500,000 worth of tarted-up Christmas sweaters and related gear this year, while the Now That's Ugly Society in B.C. is hoping to raise about $100,000 for charity through its crazy sweater events.

"It's an excuse to be silly, first of all," says Jordan Birch, co-founder of the Now That's Ugly Society, which is hosting its 13th annual Ugly Christmas Sweater Party at the Commodore.

"There's so much pressure around the holidays. People love dressing up."

Plus, says Birch, wearing the sweaters builds camaraderie.

For his organization, the sweaters have also become the focal point of a fundraising initiative spreading across the country in support of the Children's Wish Foundation of Canada.

"In our case, the sweater has always been an icon to give back and be kind, just as much as it is to be current and be trendy."

Did you say trendy?

How trendy is a matter of debate.

Russell Smith, a men's fashion columnist with the Globe and Mail newspaper, notes that some of today's hipsters are deliberately dressing to look mainstream — what's called "normcore" — as a kind of ironic tip of the hat to the bland and unfashionable.

"As far as hipster culture goes, that deliberate unattractiveness is just a fixture of hipster fashion, really over the last 15 years," he says. "So I can really see why ugly Christmas sweaters would be part of that."

Of course, some ugly Christmas sweaters are rather noticeable, and wearing the kitschy designs is probably an attempt to break down barriers with others.

Smith, who acknowledges he doesn't move in circles where people wear ugly Christmas sweaters to parties, says donning something that is deliberately unattractive and unfashionable is an attempt to make the wearer seem nicer.

"Christmas is a time where we're supposed to be nice to people and indicate our openness to our families. It's a way of breaking down barriers or a perception of haughtiness."

Family ties feature highly in Birch's love of Christmas sweaters, which he links to his Aunt Mary.

"She would always rock these sweaters during the holidays," he says, recalling one with little bows on it, along with finely knitted reindeer.

In 2002, when Birch was in university, he and a friend found matching penguin sweaters at a mall and wore them to a holiday party they later dubbed the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party in their hometown of Coquitlam.

"It was such a great time … and we built quite the following within our group of friends."

Ugly Christmas Sweater Day

The party turned into an annual thing, outgrowing a house, a bar and a university pub before gravitating to the Commodore in its fifth year.

At the suggestion of Birch's group, mayors of several B.C. communities have declared today Ugly Christmas Sweater Day.

The Now that's Ugly Society, which also runs a 5K Ugly Christmas Sweater Dash, hopes to raise $100,000 this year.

Birch recognizes that the sweaters, which are now available from retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, have become "super commercialized," but he sees that benefiting everyone.

"People see opportunities to profit off something current and trendy. That's just the way it is," says Birch, who has a closet full of the colourful sweaters.

"For us, we just stick true to our story and the originality we pride ourselves in and that's all we really focus on."

Half his business

Others, however, are focused on the commercial potential the sweaters hold.

"It used to be just about people who were having the ugly sweater parties," says Tyler Schwartz, founder of Retro Festive, an online retailer of Christmas merchandise in Oakville, Ont.

"It's so much more than that now," he says, and "totally mainstream."

In 2009, Retro Festive sold about 200 sweaters. This year, Schwartz is expecting to sell upwards of 10,000 and take in about $500,000, or about half his business's gross annual revenue, on sweaters and related merchandise.

"People wear them to work or to any party or to dinner with their parents, really just as a way to celebrate the season. There doesn't need to be a reason to wear these sweaters now."

Retro Festive sells sweaters that are naughty (like the kind of things reindeer get up to when no one is watching) and others that are nice.

Schwartz also carried some of the new NHL-licensed Christmas sweaters, but "drastically underestimated the demand for them, as did everyone else." They've been sold out since mid-November.

"It's one of those things where you put two hot properties together, NHL and ugly sweaters, and it really caught people's imagination."

Schwartz sees trends around ugly Christmas sweaters evolving.

"I think it's becoming not just about the sweater but it's everything that goes with the sweater, all the accessories and the kitschy hats and scarves, flashing necklaces," he says.

He also sees people wanting to stick more stuff on their sweaters: tinsel, pompoms, lights and the like.

And in that move toward personalization, the ugly Christmas sweater is falling right in line with broader trends in marketing.

"It's not only just an ugly sweater; it is your ugly sweater in that it's making a personal statement about you," says Dan Shaw, a marketing professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"People like to be expressive in some categories and fashion is definitely one of those categories."

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