CNN — At first, it was just a retro reindeer or Santa, like something your grandmother would wear. Now Fred Hajjar's ugly Christmas sweaters feature Popeye's chicken sandwiches and biscuits and lobsters from Red Lobster -- and they are going viral.
The cofounder of UglyChristmasSweater.com, Hajjar and his brother Mark Hajjar have turned the business into one of the biggest sellers of intentionally ugly holiday sweaters.
The company's latest creation was inspired by Popeye's wildly popular fried chicken sandwich. The sweater went on sale Wednesday and was an instant success.
Hajjar said the idea for the chicken sandwich sweater arose after he noticed orders were slightly down in the first two weeks of November versus last year. That's when people typically start ordering their ugly sweaters for holiday festivities.
"I knew I had to do something creative, quickly," he said.
He asked his designers to look at hot trending topics tied to companies and brands and turn them into ugly sweater designs.
"We created mockups of our ideas and reached out to 100 different companies, including Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, White Claw," he said.
Popeyes loved it. "They told us to go ahead and make it at no charge," he said. Typically, Hajjar's company signs a licensing agreement with the company that owns the brand, offering the company a percentage of the sales.
The business made 1,000 Popeyes chicken sandwich sweaters and sold them for $45 apiece. "We started selling them today online and they sold out by late afternoon," he said Wednesday.
Hajjar and his team are now selling sweaters tied to nine other brands. There's "Let it Flo," featuring the character Flo in the Progressive Insurance commercials, a '"Let it Dough Dough Dough" with General Mills' iconic Pillsbury dough boy mascot and a sweater ordered by Ryan Reynold's company Aviation Gin.
Next week, Hajjar is unveiling two new ugly sweaters he hopes will also go viral. One of them will feature Tyler Blevins, also known as Ninja, the Fortnite gamer and social media influencer who's become a cultural phenomenon.
The strategy is a win-win for his company and the brands, Hajjar said. "They're getting the publicity and we're getting the traffic and sales."
The ugly sweater evolution
In just a few years, the ugly Christmas sweater phenomenon has evolved from a byproduct of hipster culture to an annual tradition embraced by entire families.
"I first noticed it in 2011 when people were having ugly sweater parties at home," said Hajjar, who was running an online business that sold merchandise from TV shows and movies at the time.
"I went on eBay and saw these old Christmas sweaters your grandma would wear, selling for $100 to $300," he said.
He decided to get in on the action. He and his brother launched UglyChristmasSweater.com in late 2012, funding it with $5,000 of their own money.
The first year, they made $40,000 in sales. But the following year, revenue jumped 300% -- and it kept climbing. This year, they're on track to sell $6 million in ugly sweaters, and the company employs 65 people.
Hajjar said all of the ugly sweaters are sold exclusively on the company's website. Most are manufactured in China and a few styles are made in Michigan.
"But now we're competing with Costco, Walmart, Macy's, Nordstrom, Kohl's - all selling ugly sweaters," said Hajjar. "So we're always thinking about how we can stay ahead and stay competitive."
The Hajjars initially ran the business out of a 42,000-square-foot warehouse in Detroit. As demand has grown, and with the ugly sweater trend showing no signs of petering out, the company acquired another 30,000 square-foot space.
They also added a new service this year that lets customers order a custom sweater to be made within 24 hours.
The ugly sweater styles have changed considerably from retro reindeers and Christmas trees to the more kitschy and bizarre.
This year, Hajjar said there are some new favorites: 3D sweaters, politically-themed designs, including one featuring President Trump, and pump-up sweaters. "There's a small pump hidden in the sleeve. You press it and it will move something on the design. Like the ears on a dog will flap up and down."
"But it's all in the spirit of fun," he said.
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