Jack McCarthy ’17 is in the business of ugly. Not pretty or nice. Not charming or cute. Just straight-up, eye-popping, shake-your-head ugly.
McCarthy sells ugly Christmas sweaters, those so-bad-they’re-good sweaters that have become a popular tradition during the holiday season. His business, Ultimate Ugly Christmas, stocks clothes so kitschy, so loud and garish, that they’re almost painful to look at. “The more gaudy, the more over the top, the better,” McCarthy says.
McCarthy got into the ugly business in the eighth grade. His older sister had run a charity 5K race in a hideous Christmas sweater, and, on a whim, the pair put it on eBay to see what it would fetch. Unexpectedly, a bidding war began. The sweater sold for $50, and a business idea was born. “It made me realize you can buy something at a thrift store, market it the right way, and people will pay you for it,” McCarthy says.
At first, his parents weren’t sure what to make of the business, especially as McCarthy’s inventory began filling up the basement. Would they be stuck with piles of tacky duds? “They didn’t think there would be a market,” says McCarthy, who hails from Wauwatosa, a town outside Milwaukee. “But once they saw it was successful, they knew the sweaters would be moving out of the basement.”
As the trend of wearing ugly sweaters has grown (think of the myriad shindigs where party-goers, ironically or not, sport the tacky creations), so has McCarthy’s business. He has sold more than 1,000 sweaters each of the last three years. His peak was 2013, when he sold 1,600 sweaters and earned almost $50,000.
Competition also has grown. McCarthy says eBay had 30 listings for ugly Christmas sweaters when he started his venture. Last year it had 30,000. Big outlets like Wal-Mart and Target also have climbed aboard the ugly bandwagon. To differentiate himself, McCarthy sells only secondhand sweaters. “I call them authentic vintage grandma sweaters,” he says. “They’re literally what someone’s grandma used to wear 15 years ago or more.”
McCarthy has bought his sweaters in thrift stores all over the Midwest, from Minnesota to Michigan to Indiana. A few years ago, he visited more than 100 thrift stores during the summer. “I tried to look in thrift stores on the East Coast and in California, but the best sweaters are in the Midwest,” he says. While he continues to do a lot of his own buying, McCarthy has had to supplement his inventory lately by purchasing from wholesalers that sell vintage sweaters by the pound.
On his website, McCarthy rates his sweaters in three categories: ugly, uglier, and ugliest. The uglier the sweater, the more money it costs. McCarthy relies on his years of experience in tackiness to rate the garments. “I have seen thousands and thousands of sweaters,” says McCarthy, who keeps a personal collection of 20 to 30 of his most horrid discoveries. “I guess I’m an expert.”
Despite the success, McCarthy doesn’t plan to sell ugly sweaters forever. He is working on other e-commerce sites, including Vibe Tanks. A vendor of tank tops that McCarthy describes as “frat boy style,” the site was co-founded with Aditya Sastry ’17 in June and has seen brisk business so far.
But as another holiday season rolls around, McCarthy remains committed to the pursuit of ugliness. Back home in Wisconsin, he still keeps his inventory in his parents’ basement, and his mom takes up the job of shipping the clothes to customers. For her efforts, McCarthy makes sure to buy her great Christmas presents. And, no, he doesn’t give her sweaters.—John Crawford