Most of the ugly Christmas sweaters you’ve seen online — generally, the more tasteless ones — are produced by the same person. But they have zero web presence – no standalone store, no biographic details and no headshot. The twisted mind behind polar bears humping and Santa Claus’s T-Rex attack is almost impossible to locate. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Alex Stevens, the designer of your favorite ugly sweaters.
The Alex Stevens Amazon store currently lists 119 items of clothing; sweaters make up around 90% of the merchandise. They’re not the only ugly sweater company, but Alex Stevens Ugly Sweaters are the most recognizable of all Ugly Christmas Sweaters.
And they’re on the more risque end. Forget the “it’s so ugly it’s almost stylish” genre that’s been around lately, these are pure stop-you-in-your tracks and feel a little ill styles.
Like their Sad Snowman sweater, where a dog cocks his leg and urinates all over the snowman. Then there’s a vomiting hangover reindeer spewing green bile, a red cup stuck to his antler. Maybe you’d prefer the hairy reindeer sweater that looks like nipples. Or the bro-tastic, Does your reindeer even lift sweater?
These sweaters are recognized by anyone who’s ever been on an ugly sweater hunt (searching for “ugly sweater party” on Google returned more than three million results) and they are sold by a bunch of resellers like Holiday Fury and UglySweaterSeason.com.
The sweaters have thousands of comments on Amazon from long-time fans, all showing their appreciation for the designs. The comments are pretty entertaining…
Alex Stevens Reindeer Hangover Ugly Christmas Sweater
“I bought this after taking an Ambien one night, and was pretty horrified when I saw what I’d done the next morning. However, when the sweater arrived, I immediately decided to keep it. It’s very high quality for the price. Amazon buyers – please get more of these. The public needs them.houstondan
Alex Stevens Men’s Polar Bear Pair Ugly Christmas Sweater
“Maybe it’s the sultry, curve hugging knit. Maybe it’s the powerful imagery of polar bears doin’ what comes natural. Maybe it’s just the additional pheromones coming out in my sweat when I wear this thermodynamic wonder. I don’t know WHAT it is. But the ladies are lining up around the block, all of a sudden.”K. Henderson
Alex Stevens Men’s Dinosaur Reindeer Buffet Ugly Christmas Sweater
“It’s my firm belief that Christmas isn’t gory enough, so imagine my surprise when I discovered this little gem! I was slightly worried when I ordered it that the dinosaur would look too angry, and since reindeer are a completely different species than the T-Rex, it might be construed as a hate crime. When it arrived I was pleasantly surprised that Mr. Rex has more of an expression indicating a tickled puzzlement at the flavor of reindeer rump than raging, hate filled, hoofed bloodlust. Fits well, soft and cozy, annoys the right relatives.”Thaddeus & Amanda O
But who is Alex Stevens?
There was no information about the person – or brand – on any of the websites that I went to. Everyone wrote glowing descriptions, but who was the genius behind all these vomiting zoo animals? I’d now spent way too long look at Santa’s in compromised positions and my ADD wouldn’t let me power down till I had the answer.
The first step to tracking down this elusive designer was purchasing a sweater from the Amazon store…
I chose the briefcase toting T-Rex sweater. Then I emailed Amazon, asking to be connected to the seller (no seller response form provided with the purchase). Amazon customer service replied, providing me with contact details for Alex Brands. Sounds promising, right?
However this company sells children’s toys and bears no relation to the Alex Stevens. LinkedIn was no help either. I briefly thought the designer might be Australia-based CEO Alex Stevens, but it turned out his work is in strategy and growth, not ugly sweater related at all. The Alex Stevens Ugly Sweater Facebook Fanpages (yes, these are real) were useless as the moderators preferring to giggle over designs then get to the real heart of the issue. Who was this elusive man (or woman)?
Next, I considered that Alex Stevens might be a shill, a cover name for some Chinese wholesaler who mass produced weird designs and made their money over Christmas time. I turned to Alibaba, the place for knockoff products. I found their infamous Christmas Light Dolphin sweater. I spoke to the shop, asking about the designer.
“You have really nice eyes, this styles is very hot sell recently, :)” the salesperson messaged me.
They said the Alex Stevens lookalikes were made by their in house designer. Finally, I thought I’d found my answer. But then I found more clones of these sweaters. The stores couldn’t all be the designers. Something didn’t feel right.
Then I heard back from San Diego-based Shawn Wylde, CEO of HolidayFury, an online ugly sweater portal that launched earlier this year. During my research I’d contacted a number of retailers, asking about the popularity of their sweaters, and if they knew who Alex Stevens was.
Wylde gave me a lead, an email for the person he said had designed the sweaters. He told me they now worked for a new brand of ugly sweaters. Breathlessly I emailed. “I want to learn all about you!” I wrote.
Two minutes later, I got an email back.
“Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently.”
I was crushed. But Wylde was on the case, and through him I managed to connect to the real Alex Stevens.
The Big Reveal
Meet Amanda Neville: the 32-year-old New York designer behind the mayhem. She’s the ugly sweater queen, having designed around 90% of every Alex Stevens ugly sweater in existence. That’s around 70 designs a year, which translates into hundreds of ugly sweaters.
In January 2015, Neville left her job and moved to a new company to launch Blizzard Bay, a new brand of Ugly Sweaters. There are 41 listed on Amazon right now. You’ll recognize the style: the designs are new, but the artist is clearly the same person. The range includes a vomiting light up unicorn, a vomiting polar bear, and a vomiting reindeer and The Shining twins in red and green.
“Vomit is a shout out to the party culture,” she explained. “People are wearing these for the party season, going to 15 pubs a day and getting wasted. Why not include vomit?”
But how did Neville become the creative brain behind Alex Stevens’ cult sweaters? Neville told me that Alex Stevens used to be a very traditional menswear brand, think beige sweaters and lined pants. She started work there in 2005. Four years ago, she made a couple of ugly sweaters as a fun project at work.
“I went in another direction when the boss wasn’t paying attention,”she told me. “He saw how much money he made from them, and started doubling production.” Now, sweaters are what resonate when you think of the brand.
So who is Alex Stevens? “It’s not a real person,” she explained. “It’s the name of the two sons of the people who owned the company, he never existed as a person.”
This might be standard practice in the design world, but her reveal left me open mouthed. In my head I’d built up Alex Stevens into a figure with an almost mythical status, partly due to the difficulty I’d had in identifying them and tracking down any solid details.
But Neville more than made up for my disappointment that Alex Stevens didn’t actually exist. She was bright charming, and had a brain full of entertainingly twisted designs. I asked her about some of her favorites.
“I love the Blizzard Bay Three Wise raptors,” she said. And she’s a fan of the reindeer sweater with mistletoe where its underwear would be. From her Alex Stevens line, she loves her “Merry Chihuahua” sweater which features two small dogs surrounded by cacti. That’s my friend’s dog!” she laughed.
Neville says it feels odd to realize her work has “entered the realm of what is Christmas wear,” and referenced the fact that many websites feature designs similar to her older work. She told me that a lot of inspiration comes from Instagram, and people leaving comments on her work. That’s where this year’s crop of unicorns and sloths came from.
But one point she’s emphatic about is the definition of a sweater. She says she likes the screenprinted designs that are popping up today – like the Drake Dancing sweater, but wants to clarify they’re sweatshirts, not sweaters. The dictionary agrees. “I go to China and I hang out with people and pick up yarns, that’s totally lost on people just screen printing factory prints,” she said.
That aside, Neville’s work has appeared on lots of people, including celebrities. The most recent appearance of her ugly sweaters was in The Night Before, the just released Christmas movie starring Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“I had the Jewish star of David in my collection for two years and they [the film company] asked me to change it,” she said. Neville also created the Black Santa design worn by Mackie. However, due to licensing rights, these are exclusive to Tipsy Elves, Neville’s direct competition. They’re projected to make $2 million from the merchandise. It’s a sore point.
I wanted to know what makes the perfect ugly sweater.
“It has to be just the right mix of the wrong colors, something a little weird,” Neville said.” Something where you wonder if you should wear it to work or not. I want people to feel a little naughty when they wear them.”
Neville’s designs have helped create a brand new business avenue, for ugly-sweater-focused retailers. Like Joe Garza, who is in the second year of running Ugly Sweater Season, his web store. He told me that his sales have increased 75% since year one, and that he gets people searching for throughout the year; the heaviest traffic is in the winter months. He started his store as an experiment, after being frustrated at how “gross” some of the available sweaters were, heavy bulky material that was itchy and scratchy.
The average cost of Garza’s sweaters: $50. This isn’t his full time gig – he’s an IT consultant – but he said that running his store gives him some “great extra holiday income.”
“These types of sweaters were so cool back in the 90’s,” he said. “The trend is coming back and is becoming a fun gathering whether it be for family gatherings or company parties. it brings out the humorous side of some people.”
CEO Shawn Wylde from Holiday Fury agrees. “I noticed that the sweater trend is evolving into a Christmas holiday costume type event, “ he said. “I think dressing up for Christmas is going to transcend a trend and become a part of our culture.”
Wylde told me he’s taken over two million dollars in sales this year. “Americans love to dress up in costumes. Halloween is downright fun and other holidays are taking notes,” he said, explaining why there’s such a high demand for ugly sweaters.
He’s one of many. The Chicago Tribune reported that 34-year old Joey Dunne, started running Christmas Sweater Depot in 2011. Last year he made $30,000 in a few weeks, due in part to a pop-up store he ran. And 30-year-old Tony Madalone from Fresh Brewed Tees has found his pop culture referencing ugly sweaters so popular that he’s opening a second retail outlet in Cleveland. His top sweaters include “O Kim All Ye Faithful” (a knitted Kim Kardashian spraying herself with eggnog) and the Donald Trump “Do you Hair what I Hair” sweater.
Other brands have taken note. You can now buy licensed NFL ugly sweaters, NBA Ugly sweaters, $500 Moschino ugly sweaters, and Target even has an “Ugly Holiday Collection” with 220 items. Heck, Shark Tank entrepreneur Robert Herjavec invested $100,00 for 10% in Tipsy Elves, an ugly sweater brand that he calls his “most successful investment on the reality show.” They made around $7 million last year.
There are no stats for how much revenue Alex Stevens has made, but given their popularity and huge presence it’s likely in a similar range. Neville’s new venture, Blizzard Bay, is just getting established, but the retailers I spoke to raved about her designs and are stocking a lot of them so this should grow exponentially. This year she had around 60 different designs for sale, and she predicts around 80 new Blizzard Bay ugly sweater styles in 2016.
The future of ugly sweaters?
“I see things getting bolder and brighter and people willing to wear crazier things,” Neville told me. “Everyone is into this.” Next year Blizzard Bay might open a standalone web store, but for now it’s Amazon and retailers only. Long term, Neville would like to run her own company and create clothing for a wide gender-fluid audience who find it difficult to get sweaters. “More body types, more styles,” she enthused.
We can look forward to a world where costumes become the norm, with the growth of kid-ults and people looking for light-hearted ways to have fun. But unlike Halloween costumes, people can see your face with ugly sweaters.
“It puts people in a different frame of mind,” Neville said. “It gets you attention and makes you want to go out and meet people.”
Which is the point of the party season, after all.
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