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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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What's the Kennection? #159
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11 Classic Facts About Converse Chucks
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Converse’s Chuck Taylor sneakers have been around since the early 20th century, but they haven’t changed much—until recently. In 2015, The Chuck II—a new line of Converse that looks much the same as the original shoe but with a little more padding and arch support—hit stores. In honor of the kicks' staying power, here are 11 facts about Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  

1. They were originally athletic shoes. 

The Converse All-Star debuted in 1917 as an athletic sneaker. It quickly became the number one shoe for basketball, then a relatively new sport (basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891, but the NBA wasn't founded until 1946). By the late 1940s, most of the NBA sported Chucks. They remain the best-selling basketball shoes of all time, even though very few people wear them for basketball anymore. (Many teams switched to leather Adidas in the late ‘60s.)

2. Converse previously made rain boots.

The company started in 1908 as a rubber shoe company that produced galoshes.  

3. The All-Star design hasn’t really changed since 1917.

The updated Chuck II is Converse’s first real attempt to update its flagship product since the early 20th century. The company is understandably reticent to shake things up: All-Stars make up the majority of the company’s revenue, and like any classic design, its fans can be die-hards. In the 1990s, when the company tried to introduce All-Stars that were more comfortable and had slightly fewer design inconsistencies, hardcore aficionados rebelled. “They missed the imperfections in the rubber tape that lines the base of the shoe,” according to the Washington Post. The company went back to making a slightly imperfect shoe.

4. Chuck Taylor was a basketball player and trainer ...

Chuck Taylor in 1921. Image Credit: North Carolina State University via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Taylor was a Converse salesman and former professional basketball player who traveled around the country teaching basketball clinics (and selling shoes) starting in the 1920s. His name was added onto an ankle patch on the sneaker in 1932

5. ... And though he sold a lot of Chucks, he wasn't always a great coach.

Taylor is in large part responsible for the shoe’s popularity with athletes (the company rewarded him with an unlimited expense account), but his training advice wasn’t always the best. As former University of North Carolina player Larry Brown told Spin in an oral history of the shoe:

My greatest memory of Chuck Taylor—probably ’61 or ’62—is that he told Coach [Dean] Smith that he’d make us special weighted shoes in Carolina blue. The idea was that we’d wear the weighted shoes in practice, and then during the games, we’d run faster and jump higher. Well, we tried them for one practice and everyone pulled a hamstring.

6. Converse didn’t intend for their shoes to be punk.

“We always thought of ourselves as an athletic shoe company,” John O’Neil, who oversaw Converse’s marketing from 1983 to 1997, told Spin. “We wanted to sell a wholesome shoe.” The company was still touting its shoes as basketball sneakers as late as 2012, and some of its non-Chucks sneakers still have pro endorsers.

7. The company owns a recording studio.

Finally embracing its role in the music scene, the company launched Rubber Tracks, a Brooklyn-based recording studio where bands can record for free, in 2011.

8. Not all the Ramones were fans. 

Chuck Taylors are associated with punk rockers, especially the Ramones, but not everyone in the band wore them. “Dee Dee and I switched over to the Chuck Taylors because they stopped making [the style of] U.S. Keds and Pro-Keds [that we liked],” Marky Ramone told Spin. “Joey never wore them. He needed a lot of arch support and Chuck Taylors are bad for that.”

9. Chucks were initially only high tops. 

In 1962, Converse rolled out its first oxford Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Previously, it had just been a high-top shoe. Four years later, the company would introduce the first colors other than black and white.

10. Rocky ran in them.

In 1976, All-Stars were still considered a viable athletic shoe. If you look closely at the training montage from Rocky, you’ll see the boxer is wearing Chucks. 

11. Wiz Khalifa loves them. 

The rapper named his record label Taylor Ganag Records, in part due to his appreciation for Chuck Taylors. In 2013, he launched a shoe collection with Converse featuring 12 styles. 

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