Little did they know, Zubaz co-founder Bob Truax ’81 was browsing the apparel racks a few feet away.
“Some people absolutely flip out and go nuts and love it, and some just hate it,” Truax said.
He just smiled as he continued his shopping because he knows there is still a love for the funky cultural phenomenon he helped create.
Truax found his love for teaching at St. Cloud State, but later found an even deeper love for entrepreneurship.
Following his second year of teaching after graduation, Truax went into the health club business.
A competitive weight lifter at the time, Truax partnered with his friends Dan Stock and the Road Warriors Michael “Hawk” Hegstrand and Joseph “Animal” Laurinaitis of professional wrestling fame, and opened a hardcore weightlifting gym in 1988.
Hawk came into the gym one day wearing a blousy pair of pants for his workout routine. Being a hardcore weightlifter, regular pants or shorts were not sufficient for pumping iron.
“I looked at my partner Dan and I said, ‘We could make those things.’ And so we did,” Truax said. “We had a seamstress just join the gym. So we went to the local fabric store, bought some fabric, started making bigger, blousier pants like that and then went and bought different prints.”
They made the pants in the back room of the gym and as soon as they started to see how many sold — especially the crazy prints — they knew they had something.
“It was nothing more than just a little bit more income for us at the gym initially,” Truax said.
Zubaz hit $10,000 in sales in December of 1988, and Truax went across the street to JCPenny to make their pitch.
The district manager had seen the product around, but nobody knew where it was coming from.
“I still remember when I came back to the office from JCPenny with that $27,000 purchase order. I just thought we were millionaires right there on the spot,” Truax said.
From there the company went “kaboom.” In 1989, the first full year, the company had $20 million in sales and the cultural phenomenon quickly grew.
With Zubaz overshadowing, the gym was sold.
Zubaz in the pros
Exploding onto the scene, Zubaz had about 30 different prints across the NFL.
“We’d do something different for the Bears and the Bengals. We had many different prints, but the zebra was always the number one — the iconic one,” Truax said.
Truax and his partners helped the company peak in ’91 with $48 million in sales.
“It was a very visible product. You can see somebody wearing them from a block away. So what we did always from day one was to get them on famous people,” Truax said. “The Chicago Bulls would come in and John Madden would stop by… it was nuts.”
One of the biggest strategies for Zubaz as a company was going through team equipment managers to get the product on injured players on the sidelines.
“So if (John) Offerdahl for the (Miami) Dolphins was hurt, we would go through the equipment managers and all of a sudden, national TV is panning the sidelines and there are three guys wearing Zubaz pants.”
Second time around
Truax and his partners sold Zubaz to a company out of New York in 1996. Two years later the company went belly up. The trademark was collateral for a loan to that company.
“When they went under, the trademark went to a friend of ours who had the loan. I immediately hooked up with him and we did a worldwide exclusive license,” Truax said.
Truax controlled the trademark from 1998-2008 when they started the company again.
In November 2008 Truax and Stock launched Zubaz.com.
“I was still in the sports apparel business in 2008 and knew that the Starter name brand was coming back and some of that old retro look,” he said.
CNN and ESPN picked up the news and Zubaz was back. In six weeks the company reached $160,000 in sales.
“Fortunately for us, now that we’re in our second time around it’s really college kids and high school kids who love them,” Truax said.Until 2016, the pant remained the number one item in their product line. This year it will be the legging.
“We are starting to expand in the ladies line, which we’ve never really done before. It’s always been kind of unisex,” Truax said.
Almost 50 percent of the company’s sales are to women, compared to 10 percent at the start of the company in the ’90s.
“My (campus) bookstore experience was great because the young women recognized the brand and they obviously liked them,” Truax said. “It was equally as telling when their mom came up and didn’t seem to like them as much.”
Zubaz fun facts
- 75 color combinations in the zebra print
- The Road Warriors, pro wrestlers Hawk and Animal, are investing partners since ’88
- Red and black – spirit combo since ’92
- 99% of sales are from the United States
- Almost 50% of sales are women
- The legging is predicted to outsell the original pants in 2016