Almost time for the Ugly Christmas Sweater

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Tipsy Elves attire is an irreverent apparel brand that's most famous for its ugly Christmas sweaters. Those who don Tipsy Elves’ loud sweaters have Evan Mendelsohn and Nick Morton to thank for the extra attention. When they roomed together in 2004 at UCSD, theey didn’t daydream about outfitting the world in outrageous sweaters. They just wanted to be known as the guys with the funkiest attire at the theme parties they frequented. Off-the-shelf costumes from Spencers or Party City weren’t going to cut it. At the time, they pieced together their own outfits with items found at thrift stores.

Years later, after both moved on to graduate school and then lucrative career paths — Mendelsohn went to work for a law firm while Morton pursued dentistry — they would find a way to harness that same creative energy with a sweater line to capitalize on the trend of off-beat holiday parties. Now the duo, who first opened up their Tipsy Elves online shop in October 2011, can claim more than $50 million in lifetime sales. It doesn’t hurt that their outlandish apparel business was featured on a 2013 episode of “Shark Tank”; or that some of their sweaters have made it onto the backs of celebrities in real life and on the big screen.

But what started it all, and what likely continues to fuel sales, is the relatively newfound cultural appreciation for tongue-in-cheek — some might say, obnoxious — Christmas party garments. “While he was in training (as a root canal specialist) and I was working at a law job in Del Mar, we did some online keyword analysis and saw, at the time, there was a real emerging ugly Christmas sweater trend,” Mendelsohn said. “We decided there was a lot of online demand for items that no one was really selling. We thought, this could be a great way to ... launch a company that specializes in fun apparel for parties, events and occasions.”

First, Mendelsohn and Morton had to learn how to design their own products, and teach themselves Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator in the process. But by 2011 they were ready to launch. That first year, they ordered around 5,000 sweaters to get things off the ground, all while maintaining their day jobs. “All of a sudden, around October, the orders started coming in,” Mendelsohn, 33, said. “We did about $500,000 in sales that first year and that’s what really kicked off the business.”

Mendelsohn quit his job the following year. Morton followed suit shortly after they secured $100,000 in funding at a $1 million valuation from “Shark” investor Robert Herjavec. Otherwise, they’ve continued to finance operations through sales, growing their ugly Christmas sweater business year-over-year despite an onslaught of Internet rivals. They’ve also expanded their clothing line to include ostentatious ski suits, Halloween costumes and patriotic wear.

Sweaters typically cost between $65 and $80, while ski gear sells for $225, branding Tipsy Elves items as statement pieces instead of throw-away ones. “There’s a pervasive thought that fun clothes have to be cheap, one-time wear and will fall apart,” said Morton, 35. "To that, I would say that dressing up and having fun will always be in fashion. The company’s ultimate goal is to become synonymous with fun.”

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