An Interview with the pioneer of Ugly Christmas Sweaters: Michael Simon

When I went to an exhibition opening in Bonn some weeks ago, a woman and her child spoke to me and asked: „Where did you get this cardigan from? We barely have an eye for the art, but look at your jacket all the time!“ I wore a dog cardigan by Michael Simon. And like many of his fashion pieces, this is elaborately decorated: Small dog heads made out of different materials adorn the entire jacket, their eyes are made of beads, buttons or jewelry – it’s a fantastic play of motives, colors and materials. But Simon’s most popular designs are his adorable Christmas Sweaters. On them you will find nutcrackers, Santa Clauses, Christmas trees, the Grinch, Mickey Mouse and many more.

There had been many speculations, where the popular and so-called „Ugly Christmas Sweater“ actually have their roots. Has it been the music video for „Ugly Sweater“ by the Mistletoe Conspiracy?

Or the first part of „Bridget Jones,“ in which Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) wore a green pullover with an oversized moose head?

The Christmas Sweaters are of course much older, but were not accepted in the world of high-fashion for a long time – until Michael Simon appeared. While today’s Ugly Christmas Sweaters (like an outfit for a bad taste party) are legitimate kitsch and irony, Michael Simon has not just simply worked with irony. He has also seriously and purposefully made art. His canvas were the clothes – and of course the people who wore them and still wear them today. To understand in which way Michael Simon’s garments can be defined as art, let’s say pop art, we also need to know the variation of motives he worked with and how they were staged in editorials. A jacket with perfume bottles is worn in a supposed perfume advertisement. In a sweater with ballet dancers a model tries on acrobatics. And of course proud dog owners wear a cardigan with the same theme.

Almost all garments are about the repetition of a motive for the appreciation of the same. Of course, they can also be worn with irony. But while someone who wears the cheap-printed Ugly Christmas Sweaters only praises his or her own ability to irony, one who wears the elaborate processed Michael Simon Sweater takes irony as a concept very seriously.

I’m very happy to have a brief interview with the alleged inventor of the Ugly Christmas Sweater and, moreover, one of the most humorous fashion designers.

Hi Michael! Since I’ve seen the dog cardigan in the series „The Nanny“ in the 1990s, I’ve been in love with your designs. How did you come to your activity? And when?

I started in my east village apartment around 1975 making one sweater at a time, I would go to the closest store to my apartment, show them the one design I made and take orders. Everyone loved them because they were so different. I used yarn from a yarn jobber who had cases of yarn left over from other mills. He had some yarn from the 1950s in bright colors, I used that yarn. So you have, over sized, one size fits all, bright colors, hand-loomed. What’s not to like. Little by little I grew the company from my studio apartment where the neighbors would ask „what is that noise coming from your apartment“ (the hand loom). I was studying ballet and learned how to use the machine making leggings for dancers. When I couldn’t handle the production in the loft I went to Hong Kong with a friend and started to produce there, then China opened up and people had hand knitting skills and were willing to make whatever we dreamed up. So we got dreaming.

And what was your first design?

First design was one style, one size fits all from my east village NYC apartment, made them myself on a hand knitting machine. They were unique because I had no background in designing clothing and it was the only way I could get them finished in a reasonable amount of time.

Are you the inventor of the Ugly Christmas Sweaters, which are so popular everywhere today – and if not, do you know since when this „tradition“ has existed?

I think I am. When I made my first one there were some traditional winter scene type sweaters out there but not much and nothing crazy fun.

In addition to Christmas motifs, you have brought cats, dogs, tennis players, skiers and much more on the sweaters. How did you come to your motives?

One idea leads to another.

And do you have a favorite design or sweater?

The ones that didn’t sell.

How would you describe a typical wearer of your clothes? Are there any?

Nope but I love them all

I read on your website that you have worked a lot with artists. What were your favorite cooperations?

The artist were kids from art schools who also wanted to be in fashion. They all had unique stories and they were the most creative, artistic people I know.

Are your sweaters and bags to be seen as fun? Or do the wearers express their love to the theme depicted in the motif with them? Does anyone wear a Michael Simon sweater with irony – to show that he or she enjoys fashion, or seriously – to show that he or she enjoys playing tennis?

Because they were created by artist the workmanship was incredible, the thought process was different, we were making art. People were seriously about what they wore, they had an emotional connection to the sweaters.

Do you think there is less fun in and about fashion today than in the past – or more?

It can happen any time, we broke all the rules so people responded, it will happen again.

It is not fashion, it is bigger.

It seems to me, that you don’t do any crazy sweaters today. Why?

Not right now, but vision persists.

Do you have an archive of all designs?

I kept a lot of the press articles, awards, old photo shoots ( back when we used film) etc in some boxes.

What are you doing today?

Today I am retired but have a small presence in Neiman Marcus with my brand. Still dreaming of finding the right partner to take what we started and build on it. I no longer can dance very well so I’m laying low.

Thank you, Michael!

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