The wood-paneled walls in Comet Clothing Company's headquarters in the Warehouse District are replete with autographed pictures: Guns N' Roses, Bill Clinton, Dan Marino — pretty much anybody who was anybody in the 1990s. The floor is a dizzying kaleidoscope of neon, zebra-striped clothing.
Two heavily muscled middle-aged men, Dan Stock and Bob Truax, sit at sprawling desks in back of the showroom. Stock is tall, at least six-foot-five, with a broad chest and shoulders. Truax is shorter and more compact, with a deep tan and dark brown hair.
They are the founders of Zubaz, those loud-hued, animal-printed pants that were all the rage for jocks in the late 1980s and early '90s. Though it's commonly assumed Zubaz's sudden disappearance from the market in the mid-'90s was a consequence of passing fads, the real story is far stranger.
"The bottom line is that we made a lot of mistakes," Truax says. "And we did a lot of things right."
Stock nods thoughtfully. "We were just hoping to supplement our gym business," he says. "I don't think either of us would have ever thought we would go into the clothing business."
Stock crosses the room and takes down a professional photo of former Guess spokesmodel Claudia Schiffer, who is tastefully topless and wearing only Zubaz.
"We really focused on getting product on famous people," Stock explains.
Truax glances at the photo of Schiffer. "I remember that shoot. She was very nice, very shy, very young."
Stock furrows his forehead. "I think she actually got in trouble for being in our ad back then, didn't she?"
"Yeah, I think she did," Truax says with a mischievous laugh. "Guess was the sort of high-end fashion brand back then. And Zubaz, well, we were pretty much the opposite of that."
It all started with a pressing issue. Truax and most of his bodybuilding, power-lifting pals had a wardrobe problem. They couldn't find pants to fit their massive, tree-trunk thighs.
It was a pernicious enough gripe in 1988 that it was a frequent topic of discussion at the Twin Cities Gym, which Truax had recently opened with Stock, his friend and former colleague.
Then the Road Warriors came back from a trip to L.A. with a solution.
The Road Warriors, a.k.a Joe "Animal" Laurinaitis and Mike "Hawk" Hegstrand, were a pro-wrestling tag team known for their outlandish shoulder pads and over-the-top personalities. At the time, Minnesota was home to Verne Gagne's renowned America Wrestling Association and a hotbed of pro wrestlers and bodybuilders. The Twin Cities Gym, known for its hardcore weightlifting scene, drew some of the most famous.
Animal and Hawk had been working out at a Gold's Gym and had come across a pair of unusual sweatpants by a brand called Everywhere. The pants fit snug around the waist, roomy in the thighs, and tapered through the calves and ankles. They were glorious.
The Road Warriors showed the pants to Truax and Stock, and the gym owners immediately saw an opportunity for a side business: They would make and sell similar pants for their gym clientele. Hawk and Animal — along with a handful of Stock and Truax's closest friends — agreed to invest in the new clothing company as partners. The only problem was finding a way to make the pants.
Then someone mentioned that Diane Grace Goodman, a bodybuilder and one of the gym's regulars, was a pretty good seamstress. When the guys approached her, she was doing leg lifts.
"Hey Diane," Animal greeted her. "We got these pants and we really want to make some like it."
Goodman kept pumping her quads as she looked the pants over. The construction was almost laughably simple to her eyes.
"I could do that," she said, exhaling on a rep.
"Really?" Truax asked, surprised.
"Yeah," she said. "Really."
A small storage room in the back of the gym became Goodman's designated sewing space. She quickly got to work cutting a pattern and sewing crude samples. The other gym patrons quickly got wind of what Goodman was up to and started begging her for custom pairs. Goodman was happy to oblige.
Within a few months, the demand was so great that Goodman and Stock were making weekly trips to SR Harris to buy fabric in bulk. Oddly, the fabric most highly sought after by their customers was not the heather gray typically associated with athletic pants. Rather, the gym denizens preferred bold, busy prints.
It was the wild look of the pants that inspired their name. Outside the Twin Cities Gym was a heavily trafficked basketball hoop. During heated pickup games, players would often shout, "In your face!" at their opponents. A popular street term, "Zubaz," had come to mean the same thing, so someone might simply grunt "Zubaz" to save himself some syllables. No one had seen anything more in-your-face than these funny-shaped pants in screaming patterns, so "Zubaz" became their brand name.
The Road Warriors wore Zubaz on their pro-wrestling circuit tours, attracting new customers wherever they went. Meanwhile, Stock and Truax placed a few modest ads in muscle magazines. Before long, Goodman could no longer keep up with all the orders. She'd probably cut and sewn close to 1,000 pairs of pants. There had to be some other way to keep the business running.
Two common professions of the gym regulars were bouncer and prison guard. Dale Henn was one of the latter and had heard through the penal-facility grapevine that a sewing program had recently started up at the women's correctional facility in Shakopee. So Stock and Truax got in touch with Joellen Buzinec, the head of the initiative. Buzinec said she could guarantee 300 pairs per week.
When Buzinec saw exactly what her charges would be making, however, she was shocked. At the start of each week, the inmates — an otherwise sullen bunch — delighted in seeing what crazy fabric they would be feeding into their sewing machines next. More and more often, the wild print of the week would be zebra stripes. It was the design favored by the Road Warriors, and it was definitely the most in-your-face. The latest problem, however, was where to find zebra-print material when the fabric stores ran out.
Another issue was that the output of 300 pairs of pants per week was fast becoming nowhere near enough. Zubaz would need to find a full-service manufacturing plant capable of producing its signature zebra-patterned fabric.
They soon found one in North Carolina, and then, almost like magic, came their first retail order. Today, Truax's eyes gleam like baby-blue crystals when he thinks back to that order.
"From that point on, it just went, 'Kaboom!'"
On the morning of Zubaz's JC Penney debut, a couple hundred people crowded outside the store before it even opened. There were teenagers, middle-aged guys, little girls, and grandmothers. Some wore face paint and angry six-inch spikes, just like the Road Warriors.
In the two years since Zubaz had morphed from a trend within the gym community to an increasingly widespread fad, Stock and Truax had set their sights on the JC Penney in Rosedale, one of the largest department stores in the Midwest. Unbeknownst to them, Gregg Lurie, the merchandising manager for the Rosedale JC Penney, was also trying to figure out how to get Zubaz into his store.
Back then, it was still possible for a regional store in a national chain to sell exclusive wares and completely bypass corporate. This allowed Lurie to jump on the Zubaz trend in 1990, when it was still mostly a Twin Cities phenomenon.
A wrestling fanatic, Lurie had seen the Road Warriors wearing the zebra-striped pants in pictures and had started asking around the Twin Cities about where he could find them. When Lurie finally tracked down Stock and Truax and held a meeting with them, he presented them with a contract for $27,000 on the spot. He had a feeling these pants were going to be hot.
He was right. On that debut day, when Zubaz commanded its very own section of the JC Penney and the Road Warriors autographed posters and wrestling paraphernalia right there in the store, Lurie sold $1,500 worth of the zebra-print pants. In the coming year, JC Penney would sell $1 million in Zubaz.
While Lurie was enjoying the raging success of Zubaz in his store, the Road Warriors were about to inadvertently open an even more lucrative market. Dan Johnson, with whom Animal had played football at Golden Valley Lutheran College, was now a tight end for the Miami Dolphins. In the offseason, Johnson worked out at the Twin Cities Gym, where he fell in love with the wild pants Hawk, Animal, and the rest of the gym rats were wearing. He packed some in his suitcase and brought them back to Florida.
Johnson's distinctive sweatpants caught the attention of fellow players like quarterback Dan Marino, now a Hall of Famer. Marino asked Johnson if he could score a pair. When Johnson brought a few back from Minnesota, Marino immediately began wearing them on the sidelines. The pants were eye-catching even from far up in the bleachers.
Bobby Monica, the Dolphins' equipment manager, was intrigued by the garment's visibility. Monica asked Johnson to introduce him to Truax and Stock. Monica chatted with the business partners over the phone, and soon a box arrived in Miami bursting with enough Zubaz for the entire team, all in the Dolphins' signature aqua, orange, and white color scheme.
Visiting teams invariably began to notice all the zebra print on the Dolphins' side of the stadium. When they asked about it, Monica would pass out Truax and Stock's business cards.
"Call these guys — they're great," Monica would say. "They'll get you whatever colors you want."
With Zubaz sprouting up on the sidelines in countless football stadiums nationwide, the NFL couldn't help but take notice. Someone in the corporate office called Stock and Truax and invited them to New York to talk licensing.
Deals with the NHL, the NBA, and MLB soon followed. So did a whirlwind tour of the country. Stock and Truax were traveling nonstop to tradeshows, Super Bowls, every all-star championship for every sport. In the meantime, Zubaz's success at JC Penney inspired other department stores to write massive orders. Macy's, Nordstrom, Footlocker, Champs, and the Sports Authority all wanted a piece of Zubaz.
To accommodate the exploding demand, Stock and Truax sold the Twin Cities Gym in late 1990 and opened a massive Zubaz distribution facility in Brooklyn Center. But they made sure to include a gym in a corner of the warehouse — despite their grueling schedules, they weren't going to miss out on workouts.
A few months later the Twin Cities played host to a number of championship sporting events: the World Series, the Stanley Cup, the National Special Olympics, and Super Bowl XXVI, where the Washington Redskins smoked the Buffalo Bills. At their distribution center right next to the Metrodome, Stock and Truax threw a legendary Super Bowl party. Among the names on the guest list: Dick Butkus, Dan Marino, Jennifer Lopez, and Beverly Hills 90210's Jason Priestly, who got yelled at for smoking cigarettes in the bathroom.
Around that same time, Guns N' Roses and Bon Jovi held concerts in the area, and their tour buses stopped at the warehouse so the bands could stock up on pants.
Soon after, there was an ad campaign with Claudia Schiffer, Marino, and Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green that ran in Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. There were 40 billboards in L.A., and several more in major cities on the East Coast.
That year, Zubaz recorded over $30 million in sales.
"It was chaos," says Truax. "Our lives changed a lot."
On October 16, 1992, the Associated Press published a business article with the headline, "Hong Kong Industrialist Buys Majority Share of Zubaz." Arthur Tse, the titular industrialist, had agreed to pump $5 million into Zubaz in hopes of revitalizing the suddenly deflated brand.
Revenues had slipped from $30 million to $24 million over the past 18 months as Zubaz found itself overwhelmed by the volume of orders, according to the AP. The brand had simply grown too big too fast, exceeding its financial resources and putting a strain on production and distribution.
Even though they may not have admitted it at the time, Stock and Truax were just as overwhelmed as their brand.
"We always had cash issues because of the growth," Stock says. "We were always in a cash-poor position. And we were running around 24/7 trying to keep everything running."
In the meantime, retailers were saying that the Zubaz trend had peaked in the fall of 1990. By 1991, you couldn't give them away. Pants that had once been sold for a respectable $35 were discounted to a mere $19.
For months, Stock and Truax had been trying to address the waning of the pants fad by adding T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, and other accessories to Zubaz's roster of offerings, but the lack of liquid funds made it difficult to diversify. That's when Stock and Truax's friend — and president of Riddell Athletic Footwear — Ernest Wood and his son approached Tse, who already owned one-third of Riddell and whose family built its Hong Kong fortune in real estate, construction, and textiles.
But in exchange for Tse's financial help, the Zubaz team had to pay a heavy price. Most of the original investors, including the Road Warriors, were bought out. Stock and Truax's shares were whittled down so significantly that Tse ended up owning the majority of the company, about 80 percent.
"I didn't want to get out of it," says Laurinaitis, now retired from wrestling, and speaking from his home in Edina. "I was sad to get out of it. I hated to get out of it."
The buyout did little to solve Zubaz's cash problems. By 1994, Tse's company Silver Eagle Holdings was experiencing financial woes of its own. Zubaz was still struggling, and needed additional financing that Tse couldn't provide. So Tse sold Zubaz to New York-based 20/20 Sport, a manufacturer of activewear, mostly T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies.
Over the following year and a half, Stock and Truax would grow increasingly disillusioned with 20/20.
"All of the ideals that we had going in were gone," Stock says. "It wasn't 'our company' anymore."
Under the direction of 20/20, Stock and Truax were still working long hours, but now owned only between 3 and 5 percent of the company, with 20/20 owning about 90 percent. But this wasn't the only source of their ennui. The biggest issue was that 20/20 wanted to leverage Zubaz's licensing deals with the highly influential sports leagues to grow a tops business, while Stock and Truax wanted to continue focusing mostly on bottoms (pants and shorts). It was a problem that Stock and Truax decided was ultimately a dealbreaker.
"We left, we gave them our shares, we walked away," says Truax. "I think we ended up getting paid through the year, and we left. (Attempts to reach 20/20 principals and their lawyers were unsuccessful.)
In 1996, 20/20 Sport filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Zubaz seemed like it would forever be a brand of the past.
"I think it was very difficult for them," says Tim Greeley, Stock and Truax's longtime friend from the gym. "Here were these two guys who took a chance and put a lot of sweat into starting something, they rode the wave, and all of a sudden it's gone."
Stock and Truax aren't ones to cry over spilled Muscle Milk. After their messy split from 20/20, both men immediately went back to work. Stock opened another gym in St. Paul, while Truax landed a job with Knights Apparel, Inc., a sporting goods manufacturer.
But no matter how busy they got with other projects, Stock and Truax never forgot about Zubaz.
"Any time you innovate and invent and you see it to a pinnacle and it doesn't go the way you envisioned it, there's obviously going to be a lot of reflection and some disappointment," says Henn, the friend and former prison guard, now an inventor of "As Seen on TV" sporting equipment. "Zubaz didn't grow the way it was supposed to. It kind of died. But they felt that it wasn't time to go off into the sunset."
Shortly after they learned of 20/20's Chapter 11 filing, Stock and Truax discovered that Fred Brooks, a sporting-goods industry veteran and Tse's minority partner, had won the Zubaz trademark as collateral when 20/20 defaulted. Relieved that their brand wasn't fully dead, Stock and Truax called Brooks and immediately secured the worldwide exclusive license for Zubaz. They dabbled with the brand for a few years, but with failure still a fresh wound, weren't ready to plunge in and fully try to rejuvenate it.
Then around 2008, Stock and Truax began to sense a pent-up consumer demand for retro styles dating back to the Zubaz era, and decided to announce their full-on comeback to the media. In 2010, they purchased the trademark itself from Brooks, which gave them complete rights to the brand. Recently, they've partnered with Florida-based Dreams, Inc., a public company with plenty of capital, whose sister company, Fanatics, runs a sporting goods e-commerce operation serving major department stores like JC Penney.
"There's an actual game plan now as opposed to it just blowing up," Stock says.
Increasingly, Zubaz seems to keep cropping up in highly visible places. Mark Wahlberg will be sporting them in Pain and Gain, a movie about bodybuilders coming out in 2013. Ryan Umane, a contestant on the popular Fox TV series Master Chef, wore a red-and-white pair of Zubaz on the show. And a Minnesota Twins commercial that first aired this April gave Zubaz some serious air time. Featuring retired first baseman Kent Hrbek as "The Big Hrbowski," the commercial depicts Hrbek wearing Zubaz shorts at a bowling lane à la "The Dude" in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski.
The fact that people now seem to be wearing Zubaz ironically doesn't bother Stock and Truax one bit.
"We're not Calvin Klein, we're not Tommy Hilfiger," says Truax. "We've never taken the fashion side all that seriously. It's all about the fun."
On the street outside of Comet Clothing, Stock walks the perimeter of a van formerly used to transport the handicapped, which is now professionally wrapped in zebra stripes and the Zubaz logo. Once he decides that it looks good enough to present to Twins fans outside of Target Field on this bright summer day, he climbs behind the wheel. The Zubus is ready to roll.
Electronic dance music blasts from several speakers affixed to the outside of the Zubus while pedestrians stare in disbelief. As Stock navigates along the streets of downtown Minneapolis, faces look up from their sidewalk café lunches to gape. Two teenage boys dance to the music and laugh. Nearly everyone smiles.
After driving in several circles, Stock finally finds an empty parking spot. Before he's even fully parked, two teenage girls run up to the Zubus, followed by a group of adults. Stock reaches into the box and hands zebra-striped hats to the girls and zebra-striped beer cozies to the grown-ups. A crowd of people line up outside the Zubus as Stock hands out zebra-print headbands and Zubaz-logo T-shirts.
"Whoa, Zubaz are back!" one of the adults murmurs appreciatively as he gathers the brightly colored swag.
Then a pack of young men in their 20s approaches, raucous and ready for the game. Stock has gotten halfway through the box of merchandise and he's now down to product that looks much more substantial.
The young men hustle up to the Zubus and greedily reach in. Stepping away, the first guy to the window triumphantly holds his bounty high above his head. His friend looks at him with wide, excited eyes.
"Are those pants?!" he asks, voice rising. "Are those fucking pants?!"
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