Festive Wear: ISU grads give holiday sweaters new life

December 8, 2011

Indiana State University graduate Brian Miller reached an epiphany when he started receiving Christmas party invitations that came with a catch.

Come to the party in your best, tackiest holiday sweater.

"So in 2005, I started noticing that I was just getting a ton of invitations to these parties," Miller said, "and it was like out of the blue they started to become popular."

As he owns several dozen Internet domain names, it made sense for him to snag up uglychristmassweaterparty.com. He wrote a blog and would post pictures of some of the best - or worst - holiday sweaters he would encounter. Miller spoke with his friends and fellow ISU graduates Kevin Wool and Adam Paulson, and in November 2009 they decided to buy old Christmas sweaters from a thrift store, photograph them and then put them up for sale on the website.

"I think the expectation was that the best case scenario would be that we would each get an extra couple hundred dollars to buy Christmas presents, and worst case would be that we would each owe Adam $20 to help recoup his initial $60 investment that bought the sweaters," Wool said. "I was just excited to get them on the site and see what would happen."

They didn't have to wait long. By the next day, much to their surprise - and initially suspicion - buyers had snatched up all the sweaters.

"All three of us thought someone was messing with the group, and nobody really believed that people came on the site and bought them all," Miller said, "but it was legit."

Like a Christmas miracle, the new business known as Ugly Christmas Sweater Party was born. The three Sycamores sold 1,000 sweaters that first Christmas season and about 4,500 last year, Miller said. This year the trio hopes to sell more than 10,000 sweaters.

The three friends forged their group bond at Indiana State as members of Sigma Phi Epsilon and currently reside in Northwest Indiana. They first ran the business out of their homes; it's now gotten so big that they have about 14,000 sweaters at a warehouse in Crown Point.

Miller, who graduated from ISU in 2004 with a degree in communication, and Wool communicate regularly with their fans and customers through their site. They also have a fan page on Facebook where they offered a daily contest to name a sweater, with the winner taking home the ugly Christmas sweater as a prize. They received dozens of suggestions for each sweater, and at times garnered over 100 responses to a post.

"When it comes to companies and organizations interacting with people via social media; to be successful, you must be able to engage them in two-way communication," Miller said. "So I think that's where we've really scored."

Their education at ISU helped prepare the three of them for running the business in different ways. While Miller and Paulson, a 2005 graduate with a double major in finance and marketing, utilize their majors in various aspects of the business, Wool has also applied his lessons from his recreation and sports management major in various areas as well. He added that the lessons they learned in time management and meeting deadlines help.

"A large portion of all college projects are done in a group setting and being able to deal with conflicting schedules, personalities, and perspectives is a skill one must possess," he said, "and with the three of us working together we demonstrate that skill on a daily basis."

Last year, they appeared on the CBS Sunday Morning Show and Fox and Friends, and the media inquiries haven't subsided since. This year's media appearances include a visit to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

"Just when you think you couldn't be more surprised or shocked, something else happens that takes it to a whole new level," Wool said. "I used to say that I wouldn't be surprised if certain things happened, but that is never the case."

On Nov. 1, The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book written by the trio hit bookstores across the country. The book includes humorous instructions on how to dress for a party, along with variations of the characters encountered at the events; the ISU alumni even included photos of some of the most memorable sweaters they have sold.

They also wrote some serious advice into the book, including how to plan and host a sweater party for charity. The trio has planned such functions themselves, which provided ideas for the book.

"We know that vast majority of these parties are fundraisers, and we think that's really cool...," Miller said. "So we wanted to make sure we were putting something out, as fun as it was, that was covering these bases and making sure people were thinking about that."

Public response to the book has been positive, the group said. They worked with agent Laurie Abkemeier, who also worked on the book Marley and Me among others, and are published by Abrams Books.

Their efforts have sent them across the country, from New York for taking photos for the book cover, to Los Angeles for The Tonight Show. They also will visit campus for a mid-December book signing that will also include an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party reception.

"We are extremely honored to come back to ISU, and getting that call was truly one of the highlights of this whole experience," Wool said. "We are proud alumni and we will forever carry memories from our years spent on campus."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-BMC3RZn/0/L/i-BMC3RZn-L.jpg (Photo by Guy Rhodes/Courtesy of Ugly Christmas Sweater Party) -Indiana State University graduates and Team Ugly members Brian Miller, Adam Paulson and Kevin Wool created and operate Ugly Christmas Sweater Party, which sells ugly Christmas sweaters on the group's website.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-BzX3Pxh/0/L/i-BzX3Pxh-L.jpg(Submitted Photo) - The cover of The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book written by Indiana State University graduates and Team Ugly members Brian Miller, Adam Paulson and Kevin Wool. The book hit stores on Nov. 1.

Media contact and writer: Austin Arceo, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or austin.arceo-negrich@indstate.edu.