Even if controversial at first, true innovation is hard to ignore. In a 1993 survey conducted by Inside Sports magazine, Zubaz’s brand of flowy, ostentatious muscle pants finished third in the running for the “Worst Thing to Happen in Sports” that year – only outranked by the retirement of Michael Jordan and the death of Dino Bravo. In 1991, on the other hand, the Zubaz company sold $100 million worth of product. Although many reviled Zubaz’s garish zebra prints, a silent majority recognized the functionality of their pants for weightlifting, and bought into the brand that would launch the muscle pant to become a bodybuilding staple.
While many critics only focused on the loud aesthetics of the iconic Zubaz muscle pant, the staying power of the pants in lifting culture stems purely from their function, rather than their form. Bob Truax and Dan Stock, friends and co-owners of a bodybuilding gym in Minnesota, created the Zubaz prototype in 1988 as a fix for a common issue in weightlifter apparel: bodybuilders often had a hard time finding workout-ready pants that could house their massive quads, while still providing adequate range-of-motion for the most demanding lifting regimens. What Truax and Stock aimed to create was a pair of pants loose enough to fit any frame, while still tailored enough for appropriate usage in the gym. The end product was a pair of tapered pants with an elastic waistband, made from a material stretchy enough to fit any pair of quads and endure the hardest leg day routines. Not content with designing a minimalist, anonymous pair of muscle pants, the duo branded Zubaz in zebra-print fabrics in Day-Glo shades of orange, pink and purple.
While Truax and Stock achieved moderate success selling their Zubaz pants from their gym based on word-of-mouth hype, it wasn’t until wrestling tag team The Road Warriors began wearing Zubaz that the brand ascended to national prominence, rising in popularity alongside the WWF duo. While visually offensive to some, the brash, in-your-face patterns of the pants felt right at home alongside Road Warrior Hawk and Road Warrior Animal’s face paint and Mad Max-style shoulder pads. What followed the Road Warriors’ co-sign was a string of successes that planted Zubaz firmly in the zeitgeist of the early 1990s: an endorsement by Dan Marino, an ad campaign with Claudia Schiffer, and a lucrative retail deal with J.C. Penney.
Unfortunately, no brand or trend so closely associated with the aesthetic of a certain era can last long. Despite selling over 9 million pairs of pants and generating 9 figures’ worth of sales in the early ‘90s, Bob Truax and Dan Stock had sold their positions in the company soon after, and by 1996 the brand was bankrupt. Nothing gold (or orange, purple, green, or zebra-print) can stay.
It can be said that perhaps Zubaz’s form, truly too wild and garish to be ignored, eclipsed the muscle pants’ true value, which lay in their function. Perhaps Zubaz’s in-your-face branding, exemplified by their tagline, “Dare to be Different”, ultimately proved to be a distraction from the utility of their muscle pants for bodybuilders looking for pants that could comfortably fit their formidable physiques.
Today, the muscle pant lives on beyond the brand that conceived and popularized them – workout brands of all kinds now offer elastic-waisted, gathered-hem muscle pants in all varieties of lightweight fabrics. Not distracted by loud prints and flash-in-the-pan marketing, generations of bodybuilders have embraced the muscle pant for their pure utility: comfortable, hard-wearing legwear that can fit the most legendary gains. For many lifters that had long struggled to find any clothes that fit their larger-than-life physiques at all, much less gear strong enough to hold up to their punishing workouts, the muscle pant represents in itself an entirely new style of gymwear: not flattering, stretchy athleisure, but built for long hours in the gym, building the kind of muscles only clothing as dedicated as the muscle pant can accommodate.Continue reading