Fashion

The Rise, Fall, And Rise Of Zubaz, The Pants You Love And/Or Hate

Zubaz are back, in pants form

Fashion
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Mar 02, 2017 at 12:14 PM ET

During a 1990 JCPenney quarterly video conference, executives in the Plano, Texas corporate office made a business decision motivated by a death threat.

The executives had gathered to review presentations for the JCPenney men’s collection and it was all business as usual. That is until a pair of hulking men in face paint and spiked shoulder pads appeared on-screen to deliver their message.

Shortly before the presentation, a Minnesota man named Bob Truax with meandering professional bonafides—in less than a decade, he had gone from high school social studies teacher to corrections officer to gym owner to burgeoning menswear magnate—commissioned a Learjet to ferry legendary pro wrestling tag team the Road Warriors, Animal and Hawk, to a JCPenney recording studio.

There, the pair filmed a two-minute infomercial promoting weightlifter-designed, inmate-sewn, pro wrestler-marketed, zebra-striped pants called Zubaz. The sales pitch was pretty straight-forward.

“Either buy them or we’ll kill ya!”

JCPenney’s executives decided discretion is indeed the better part of valor and added Zubaz to their otherwise staid national menswear collection. The retailer sold so much Zubaz merchandise in the ensuing year— $6 million of its $20 million total revenue—that Zubaz’s bankers were concerned the proportion of sales was unhealthy. Still, few could blame JCPenney’s promotional push: No one dared cross the Road Warriors.

Perhaps no 90s fashion relic captures the era as well as Zubaz, with their trademark outlandish prints being instantly recognizable to anyone alive during their heyday. A boom period aided by the many A-listers who proudly wore them—a group that includes John Elway, Scottie Pippen, Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, and even Donald Trump.

Zubaz charted a rise to ubiquity, fall to bankruptcy, and now a return to relevancy. Like any notable invention, from the printing press to the steam engine, the story of Zubaz begins with a problem. Namely, that the serious bodybuilders of Twin Cities Gym in Roseville, MN couldn’t find comfortable pants. The gym was co-owned by Truax with Dan Stock and the Road Warriors—Joe “Animal” Laurinaitis and the late Michael “Hawk” Hegstrand—were regulars and financial partners. One day, the tag team arrived to the gym wearing baggy sweatpants and an idea was born: wide-thighed pants with an elastic waistband and tapered leg, perfect for a weightlifter’s build.

For a name, Truax and Stock played off “zooba,” local playground slang meaning “in your face.” For aesthetics, they’d buy whatever fabric they could find around town at cotton mills and textile factories, especially if the fabric happened to be a price-reduced overrun. When possible, they gravitated to the audacious patterns popular at the time.

“Back then it was all about the crazy prints,” Stock said, adding: “Our big thing is comfort. That’s what we’re all about. We’re not high-end fashion. We don’t pretend to be that.”

Initially, they’d cut up swaths in the back of the gym and enlisted a member with seamstress skills, Diance Grace Goodman, to sew them up. Soon, she couldn’t keep up with the escalating demand, so they outsourced the work to Shakopee, a women’s prison with a sewing facility.

“We had no expertise, absolutely none,” Truax said. “We knew nothing. We learned everything. It was trial and error. We made a lot of errors, let me tell you.”

What they did have was an in-demand product and the benefit of location. The Twin Cities Gym was only a few blocks from the Roseville JCPenney, which at the time ranked fifth in sales among all franchises nationally. The boss of merchandising manager Gregg Lurie had seen the pants around town, so Lurie invited Stock and Truax in. They wore Zubaz to the meeting and claim to have never worn a tie to any presentation. Still, Lurie commissioned a $27,000 purchase order.

“Seriously, we thought we were millionaires walking out of that thing,” Truax said. “It was crazy, but that was the start, JCPenney put us on the map.”

Using a meet-and-greet with the Road Warriors as a draw, Lurie threw a Saturday morning kickoff event, with a Zubaz display covering the whole front end of the store. Every employee wore Zubaz pants. Fans lined up in the parking lot. In less than three hours, some 1,500 people came through the store. Thereafter, Truax called daily to ask how many pairs had been sold. When a subsequent boss wanted to relegate the Zubaz deeper in the store, Lurie pushed back.

“My store manager thought I was crazy for doing this,” Lurie said. “Everybody thought I was crazy for doing this.”

Crazy or not, in 1990 that single JCPenney location sold 100 pairs per day, accounting for $1 million in Zubaz sales alone. The pants started as a local phenomenon—see homegrown Twins star Joe Mauer wearing them as a kid—but soon spread all over the country.

Some of that viral creep can be attributed to former Dolphins tight end Dan Johnson, a Minneapolis native and offseason regular at Twin Cities Gym, who would wear his Zubaz in Miami, attracting the attention of his teammates. Stock then sent a box of Zubaz to share with the other Dolphins, and on return trips to Minnesota, Johnson was encouraged to go through the warehouse and horde hundreds of pairs to distribute in South Florida. Zubaz even sponsored his rec softball team and dart league squad, which drew confused looks in the pub.

“The people didn’t get it yet, [asking], ‘You’re coming to dart league in your pajamas?’” Johnson said.

Johnson’s pants captured the attention of his teammate Marino—the company’s first major NFL endorser. Marino appeared in an ad with the Road Warriors and another proclaiming, “It’s not a fashion statement. It’s a fashion lecture.” Supermodel Claudia Schiffer also appeared in an ad, wearing snakeskin Zubaz and nothing else; that photoshoot is said to have irked the backers of her primary campaign, GUESS, for deviating from its higher-brow sensibilities.

Dolphins equipment manager Bobby Monica also fell for the siren song of Zubaz. He would outfit his injured players, coaching staff, and clubbies in Zubaz, essentially placing a dazzle of orange-and-green zebras on the sideline and in full view of national TV cameras every Sunday, leading to an NFL license. The Dolphins soon became so enamored of the pants that they recorded an MC Hammer inspired rap track featuring the team and its cheerleaders outfitted in, you guessed it, Zubaz.

Concurrent to the company’s early-90s rise, the Twin Cities became arguably the nexus of the American sports universe, hosting golf’s U.S. Open in June 1991, four games of the World Series in October 1991 (Twins manager Tom Kelly pictured here), Super Bowl XXVI in January 1992, and the men’s Final Four in April 1992. The Timberwolves also became an expansion franchise for the 1989-90 season and the city would later host the 1994 NBA All-Star Game.

As athletes and celebrities passed through town, they’d bus over to the Zubaz gym and 50,000 square foot warehouse in the suburbs, which became a common way station for sports’ glitterati. The Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons were among the teams who came for fittings of extra-tall sizes. Knicks legend Patrick Ewing once barged into Truax’s office with a question about licensing. Football institution John Madden would visit so often that his bus was a parking lot mainstay.

“We used to have a saying amongst professional athletes, ‘If it’s free, I’ll take two,’” said former Bills Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton, noting that he swiped pairs for both his wife and himself.

“We would have given away anything because of publicity,” Stock said. “You can’t buy that, for the cost of a pair of pants to get on national TV.”

The scheme worked, giving rise to a cultural phenomenon without what Stock calls the “explosive capability” of social media. In a few short years, their product would reach Will Smith at the peak of his “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” Fame (seen here in a quintessentially 90s pic) and dozens of NFL stars, including this collection of six Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

“They did this back before the internet was even out there,” Johnson said. “I don’t see how much bigger it could have got there, though.”

Stock and Truax, with the Road Warriors as investors, guided Zubaz to a peak of $48 million in revenue in 1991. Thanks to knockoff competitors and production costs, however, profits soon shrank to almost nothing. The pair sold stakes in the business to infuse cash, keep up with demand, and to stave off brands entering the market—a battle that Zubaz ultimately lost. In a cruel twist, Truax said their insistence on manufacturing everything domestically in the U.S. was “probably the fatal mistake, if you want to say something now in hindsight.”

The duo ultimately divested themselves entirely before new ownership let the company go belly-up. Zubaz quickly disappeared from closets and wardrobes—often purged by a discerning significant other—but fashion is a cyclical beast. All Stock and Truax had to do was wait for the right moment.

Nearly a decade ago, Stock and Truax bought back the Zubaz trademark and later re-launched as an e-commerce site. They were such a nostalgic novelty that ESPN and CNN ran news stories about their return, leading to $160,000 in sales over the first six weeks. That was all the encouragement Stock and Truax needed. Truax said they plan a big push into men’s and ladies’ loungewear lines and expect at least double the sales volume in 2017 over last year.

“I see, quite frankly, massive growth,” he said.

Proof of which came three days after Super Bowl LI, when the owners of G&G Fitness in upstate New York promptly returned a reporter’s call, saying they’d have ignored all other inquiries, if not for the topic. The Gronkowski family was still basking in the Patriots’ thrilling comeback victory and overwhelmed by the attention, but this request was different. It was about Zubaz.

“That’s why we called you back,” said Dan Gronkowski, whose brothers Rob and Glenn, a practice-squad fullback, are both employed by New England.

An email sent to the public relations staff of the Big Ten Network received no reply until an unrecognized phone number appeared on a reporter’s caller ID screen.

“Matt Millen,” the man identified himself in a voice mail. “I still wear them. They’re awesome. The greatest invention of all-time: Zubaz pants.”

When Millen broadcasts football games on radio or TV, he’ll often wear a white shirt, a sport coat, a tie, and Zubaz. “I wore them all the time,” he said, pausing to emphasize the last three words for effect. Three other respondents answered their phones admitting that they happened to be wearing Zubaz.

The current resurgence can be attributed to a classic case of middle-aged nostalgia for prime-year fashion sensibilities and millennials’ obsession with the 1990s. Few products engender such loyalty as Zubaz, and let’s be clear, it’s almost exclusively from the male gender. They may have begun in Minnesota and found a second home in Buffalo, but they crossed regional boundaries better than gender lines in their first go-round.

“My sons wore them [but] my daughters still roll their eyes at them,” Millen said. “My wife still rolls her eyes at them. But those of us are who true believers, we still keep it going.”

The tide may be changing among the younger generation. While Stock said, charitably, that sales used to skew at least 80 percent men to women, they’ve been closer to 50-50 since the reboot, owing to two factors. One, Zubaz introduced leggings and, two, the pants have become popular as warmup gear for high school and college teams—girls’ and women’s squads included.

“It’s funky, it’s crazy, it’s their school colors, so it’s become a fun thing,” Stock said.

That’s true for major league camaraderie, too. Before a 2014 road trip from Boston to Cleveland, reliever Joba Chamberlain outfitted all of his Tigers teammates in Zubaz pants, hoodies, ties, and bandanas. “You put them on, and it brings back memories,” he said, otherwise referring to them as “offseason attire.”

Roooaaarrrrr!!! Fun flight to Cleveland. #tigerzubaz #dressforsuccess #turndownforwhat

A post shared by Torii Hunter (@tnutts48) on

What Chamberlain couldn’t have predicted: travel delays. A problem with their charter meant the Tigers had to deplane and bus back to their hotel. Many players had packed all their clothes in checked luggage, so they were stuck in Zubaz through the night, morning departure, and afternoon arrival to Progressive Field.

“Everybody was wearing them for a little bit longer than I probably anticipated,” Chamberlain, now with the Brewers, said with a laugh, adding of their appeal: “It’s a conversation piece. There’s always a story that goes behind them.”

No sales market has been so consistently supportive of Zubaz as Buffalo, which brings up a chicken-or-the-egg question: Is the Gronkowski family a product of or reason for their regional popularity?

“I think it is just because of us,” Gordie Sr. said with a laugh.

When he and his brother opened their first fitness store near Buffalo in 1991, they wore and sold Zubaz. After a while, Gordie’s five sons—four have signed NFL contracts while the fifth, Gordie Jr., played three years of minor league baseball—began raiding his closet to wear Zubaz for sports practices or for no reason at all.

“My kids used to laugh at me for wearing them all the time because of the crazy colors and everything, but now they wear them everywhere now,” Gordie Sr. said.

The truth is, the Bills’ run of four straight Super Bowl appearances—which began with the 1990 NFL season—coincided with Zubaz’s peak and, as Lofton noted, a trend of fans wearing team gear. Star players like Lofton, quarterback Jim Kelly, and running back Thurman Thomas all wore them. Some fans now clamor for an alternate Bills jersey in Zubaz stripes. It’s no wonder that the company’s first brick-and-mortar store recently opened at the Niagara outlets near Buffalo.

“It’s just a blue-collar town, and people like to get dressed up for the games,” Dan Gronkowski said.

The family found another Zubaz disciple when they befriended WWE wrestler Mojo Rawley—“the No. 1 Zubaz partier in the history of Zubaz,” Dan Gronkowski said—who wore Zubaz as part of his in-ring gear for six months before recently changing his outfit. “It wasn’t his call,” Dan said. (A WWE spokesman did not return emails seeking an interview with Rawley.)

Among the Gronkowski family’s other notable Zubaz escapades: giving them out to all attendees on Gronk’s Party Ship, wearing them on the field after an AFC title game win, saluting veterans in camouflage, donning ties to wrestler Kurt Angle’s wedding (and giving them as a gift), receiving 33 pound-boxes of gear, admitting their “daily life has changed bc of @zubaz,” posing for groomsmen photos, receiving birthday whacks from their Zubaz-wearing mother, and celebrating brother Chris’s bachelor sendoff and wedding reception.

“That was quite the party in Vegas,” Gordie Sr. said, though, unfortunately for you the reader, statutorily, everything that happened there has remained within the city limits.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Zubaz’s resurgence is that they had become an open joke near the end of their first cultural run of primacy. Indeed, a 1993 issue of Sport magazine had Zubaz ranked third in a poll for “Worst Thing to Happen in Sports.” Lofton said, looking back, “They’re like bad prom pictures.” When Zubaz designed the uniforms for a pair of Arena Football League teams, the gimmick almost precipitated a premature departure of the starting quarterback.

“As soon as I laid eyes on those Zubaz uniforms, I almost went home,” former Tampa Bay Storm quarterback Jay Gruden, who is now an NFL head coach in Washington, once said.

For all the easy jokes about Zubaz, however, nostalgia still took over when Oakland A’s relievers Sean Doolittle and Pat Neshek were looking at old photos of the Coliseum. The photos revealed that the grounds crew used to work in Zubaz. Neshek, a Minnesota native who long played for the Twins, made an inquiry. They’d soon discover that the resurgence of Zubaz is far greater than anyone could have imagined.

“Shortly thereafter,” Doolittle said, “there was a gigantic cardboard box full of Zubaz.” On a subsequent road trip to play the Twins, a few A’s visited the sensory-overload storage room of the new headquarters.

“It’s floor-to-ceiling Zubaz print in every color combo you could think of—shirts, hats, pants, shorts, ties, anything you can put a zebra print on,” Doolittle said. “It was a little bit overwhelming.”

Overwhelming is the right word for the return of Zubaz. Already 27 pro sports teams (and counting) have held Zubazpalooza promotions. One Kansas City couple, who met while tailgating a Chiefs game, got married in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot while clad in Zubaz—bride too. The 2014 Russian curling team wore the red, white, and gold Zubaz at the Olympics. The Minnesota Lottery developed a themed scratch-off game. Labatt began selling Zubaz cans. What’s old is new again, Zubaz are undeniably back.

More history could soon repeat itself, too, with the sports world flocking soon turning its attention back to the Twin Cities.

“We were just plotting in the past couple of days,” Truax said, “because the Super Bowl is in Minneapolis again next year, and what are we going to do then?”