Longtime readers know that we here at mental_floss aren’t afraid to tackle the big issues. Politics. Religion. Science. And today we’ll bring that fearlessness to another hot-button issue: Zubaz. Let’s take a look at the history of the hottest zebra-striped pants of the early 1990s.
When we think of Zubaz today, “utilitarian” probably isn’t the first word that pops into our heads. However, friends Bob Truax and Dan Stock actually had a practical purpose in mind when they created the garish pants. Truax and Stock owned a Minnesota gym that was popular with bodybuilders. The bodybuilding clientele had a problem: the hardcore weightlifters couldn’t find pants or shorts that comfortably fit their massive thighs while offering the flexibility they needed in workouts. In 1988 Truax and Stock began brainstorming a new kind of shorts for the heavy-lifting man.
The pair developed a comfortably baggy pair of shorts with an elastic waistband, and their bodybuilding customers and friends quickly became hooked on the roomier duds. They named the shorts “Zubaz,” a take on the '70s street slang “zooba” for “in your face.” The duo also cleverly made their shorts in loud, distinctive, day-glo patterns—the classic zebra-stripe pattern was one of the first Zubaz prints—that matched the company’s slogan, “Dare to Be Different.”
With a Little Help From the Road Warriors, J.C. Penney and Female Inmates
The men started doing a pretty brisk business selling Zubaz out of their gym solely on word-of-mouth hype. When it came to promotion, Truax and Stock had a pair of aces up their gaudily printed sleeves: wildly popular professional wrestling tag team the Road Warriors were partners in the designers’ gym. Road Warrior Hawk and Road Warrior Animal looked right at home in Zubaz; the flashy pants meshed well with their trademark face paint and spiked shoulder pads. Then, Zubaz caught another break: after a J.C. Penney manager saw a fan sporting a pair of Zubaz at a hockey game, the department store chain began distributing the brand nationwide.
The actual production of the early pairs of Zubaz sounds a tad farfetched. Truax and Stock were buddies with several corrections officers who worked at Minnesota prisons, and when the guards heard the bodybuilders needed a workforce to stitch their increasingly popular shorts, they had a suggestion: hire female inmates to do the work. Thus, early pairs of Zubaz were the products of convict labor.
50,000 Pairs a Week
As Zubaz’s national reach expanded, so did the brand’s star power. Dan Marino became the most famous name to endorse the brand, but supermodel Claudia Schiffer also pulled on Zubaz for a series of ads. The brand’s growing popularity led to a growing product line that included longer pants and caps printed in professional sports’ teams colors. Eventually the brand was moving an eye-popping 50,000 pairs of Zubaz a week.
Of course, Zubaz popularity wasn’t as enduring as Truax and Stock probably hoped. Although Zubaz sold over nine million pairs of pants and pulled down around $160 million in sales during the early 1990s, the pants didn’t quite end up becoming a timeless classic. Truax and Stock sold their shares of the company in the early '90s, and by 1996 the business was bankrupt.
After Zubaz went belly-up in 1996, Truax and Stock reacquired the trademark. They sat on the concept until 2007, when they launched a line of new Zubaz as a novelty product aimed at retro-minded young men. According to a 2008 Minneapolis Star Tribune profile, the partners decided to keep the venture small by mostly selling on the Internet, out of a shop at the gym Stock owns, and at a few Minnesota sporting goods stores. The Zubaz.com webshop currently offers pants, shorts, hats, sunglasses, and ties.
If you're a baseball fan looking for an excuse to come out to the ballpark, several Major League teams are holding Zubazpalooza events. Get a ticket and a pair of Zubaz for around $35.
As one might guess, a large portion of the revitalized Zubaz brand’s customers were old devotees whose Zubaz had met similarly mysterious fates. As Heron Marquez Estrada of the Star Tribune wrote, “As word of the return of Zubaz has spread, Stock and Truax report getting a lot of inquiries from men who bought the pants -- often in their favorite pro team colors -- 20 years ago, and then their wives ‘lost’ them.”
This post originally appeared in 2011.