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A Brief History of Zubaz

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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.

Zubaz Redux

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.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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