Meet California’s queen of ugly Christmas sweaters

Posted at 12:34 PM, Dec 18, 2015

It was a teacher’s way to help friends celebrate the holidays without breaking the bank.

Chisa Iwuagwu had several friends who had lost their jobs in 2010. The ingredients of her no-frills party were simple: oversize sweaters in festive shades, ornaments, sewing kit and glue gun. Revelers mixed and matched candy canes with glitter balls, competed for goofy prizes and left their worries in the cold night.

“I wanted to take the pressure off and said, ‘No one’s buying anything; no one’s spending any money. You’re going to regift something in your closet, a gift from Grandma that you didn’t really love, but somebody else might.’ ”

This event inspired Iwuagwu to start her own business. Shop Ugly Sweaters launched online in 2011 and became a pop-up store during the 2012 holiday season. Now in its fourth year, business is better than ever, Iwuagwu says, thanks to the growing popularity of ugly sweaters.

The ugly sweater phenomenon has taken on a life of its own. It has crossed over from grandma’s closet to popular culture, becoming big business and blurring the line between ugly and fashionably festive.

From versions inspired by NFL teams and “Game of Thrones” to rapper 2 Chainz “dabbing Santa” sweater, which borrows from the dabbing dance craze, there is something for everybody — including cats, dogs and guinea pigs. Even Starbucks gingerbread cookies come in ugly sweaters.

At holiday gatherings across the country, partygoers are taking ugly sweater cues from their favorite Hollywood stars.

“I’m seeing tons of celebrities wearing them. There are celebrity lines of sweatshirts that are made to look like old-school vintage sweaters that your Aunt Maude would give you,” Iwuagwu said.

There’s even a fake holiday dedicated to celebrating its place in history. National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day was started in 2011 by “ugly sweater aficionados” and falls on December 18 this year. The idea? “Rock your sweater all day and night … No breaks. No excuses. The sweater must stay on.”

It’s no longer enough to have a sweater with a simple design of snowflakes, bells or wreaths. Today’s prize-winning ugly sweaters include “something unexpected,” Iwuagwu said, like fur, 3-D Santas, flashy gems and twinkling lights.

“The uglier the better. The more shock value, the more likely you are to win a prize,” Iwuagwu said.

The Detroit native understands funky Midwestern fashion that started the ugly sweater trend: comfortable, roomy tops, cozy layers adorned with bright patterns and floral prints. After moving to Los Angeles and throwing her party, Iwuagwu discovered the power of silly, tongue-in-cheek attire to bring people together.

“There’s no pressure when you have an ugly sweater party. Everyone has a conversation piece. Everyone’s talking,” she said. “I started to make them, embellish them, and it blossomed into this store.”

Her two-room shop in Burbank is bursting at the seams with tools and fabrics to make the ugliest of the ugly come to life: boxes full of tiny stuffed toys, yards of twinkling colored lights, every color of the rainbow represented in a sea of fluffy sweaters. Customers stepping inside can’t help but feel ensconced in a Santa’s workshop, where holiday classics meet modern innovation.

Many of her vintage treasures come from America’s heartland. Iwuagwu travels through the Midwest several times a year, collecting items that she’ll wash and embellish for sale.

Some customers might be looking for something new and balk at Iwuagwu’s upcycled creations. The modern, mass-produced replicas might be cheaper, but who wants to walk into a party and see someone else wearing the same outfit?

“They’ll go for the vintage sweaters that have details and embellishments that you just don’t find,” she said.

When she’s not curating her extensive collection, Iwuagwu can be found at her day job in a Los Angeles classroom, where she’s a third-grade teacher. Much of her artistic inspiration comes from her students’ imaginations and what they consider “beautiful.”

Their motto, it seems, is the more bling, the better.

“The kids will ask me, ‘Why don’t you make one with a penguin on it? Why don’t you put on more sparkles?’ ”

They’ll even go so far as to take her creations for a spin. When she brought one to school recently, one little boy took it from her chair and put it on. When she asked him what he was doing wearing her sweater, he replied, “What kid wouldn’t want to wear this?”

Shop Ugly Sweaters started as “just a little hobby” with modest intentions. A few hundred dollars later, she thought, “this is kind of working.”

Iwuagwu says sales have tripled each year. Clothing racks spill onto the sidewalk. People don her custom designs in contests, reporting back winnings such as plasma TVs and $1,000 cash. Hanukkah-themed sweaters and designs for kids sell fly off the shelves, selling out every year.

It’s evidence that something ugly can be beautiful at the same time.

“When I had my party, most people were looking at me wondering, ‘What is this exactly? ‘Why can’t you make cute sweaters? … Why would anyone want an ugly sweater?’

“I tried to explain it. They just didn’t get it.”