When Zubaz were all the buzz 20 years ago, the pants were so popular that their distinctive zebra print was worn by everyone from singer Billy Joel to wrestler Jesse Ventura.

The Minnesota creation grew into such a worldwide fad that they could be found everywhere from the sidelines of NFL games and NBA arenas to the wilds of Antarctica.

So it is not surprising that a new buzz is building over the return of the wildly outrageous pants, which since November are being sold on the Internet by the same two Minnesota weightlifters who created them in their Roseville gym in 1988.

"It's really pretty simple; it's been 20 years," said Bob Truax of Victoria, who started the business with Dan Stock of Little Canada.

The two sold more than 10 million pairs of the pants and racked up $160 million in sales the first time around.

"We've been hearing for years we should bring them back."

Now they have.

Last year, the pair decided to get back into the business, setting up an Internet site and starting a limited production run using the same pattern they began making 20 years ago.

Truax and Stock created the pants after weightlifting friends at their gym complained they couldn't find comfortable workout pants to fit their unique physiques.

"We made them for us," Truax said of the original Zubaz. "It was a very practical thing that evolved into a fashion thing."

Among their buddies were a number of professional wrestlers, including the Road Warriors, Hawk and Animal. The Zubaz turned out to be a perfect complement to the face paint and spiked shoulder pads the wrestlers wore.

The Road Warriors -- one of the most famous tag teams in the history of professional wrestling -- propelled the popularity of the pants. Things really took off when NFL quarterbacks such as Dan Marino, John Elway and Troy Aikman started wearing them.

"Back then it was kind of nuts," Stock said. "We were everywhere. Super Bowls, Final Fours, speed boat races, concerts, sitcoms, movies."

People loved the zebra print pants so much that some men took to wearing them almost full time because of their comfort and the outlandish fashion statement they made. They bought them in their favorite colors, usually to match the colors of their favorite team.

"My dad loved them. He wore them all the time," said Erik Maland of St. Paul, who said his father bought him and his younger brother matching Zubaz so they could all go out together in them. The boys were 12 and 5.

"There really isn't anything like a family in matching Zubaz attire," said Maland, who inherited and wears his dad's Zubaz since his father, a pastor, died last year. "The Zubaz really remind me of my dad."

Too big, too fast

Although Stock and Truax had a hit product, whose motto was "Dare to be Different," they ran into business problems familiar to startup enterprises.

The company grew too quickly, at one point producing more than 50,000 pairs of pants a week. Stock and Truax ran into cash-flow problems, so they had to bring on a number of partners for financing, which greatly diluted their control.

The men sold their share in the company in the mid 1990s. The company went bankrupt in 1996 and the two men bought the trademark rights back. But they resisted bringing back the pants.

Even during their heyday, the pants were so outrageous and became such a worldwide fad that a Zubaz backlash developed -- especially among women who considered them hideous and a sign of male fashion laziness.

"Zubaz have to be the most disgusting piece of apparel ever designed for men, even below that bad benchmark of men's clothing, the Speedo," Susan Olson of Minneapolis recalled recently. "Zubaz are now, and always have been, a major turnoff. ... They just scream 'lazy.'"

Stock admits that the pants were not popular with everyone. "You had people who loved them and you had haters," he said.

Given such vehemence, it is not surprising that Zubaz eventually were listed as one of the worst fads ever, along with leisure suits and Nehru jackets, by the online Bad Fads Museum.

That wide divergence of opinion has done nothing to dissuade Truax and Stock from reintroducing Zubaz to a whole new generation.

"We're not taking it too seriously," said Stock, who runs the Press Gym in Little Canada, where there is a Zubaz shop along with a tattoo parlor. "We're going to do things a little differently this time."

For one thing, the pair is focusing on selling via the Internet, where the profit margins are greater.

Also, the partners are selling small quantities at a time from the Press Gym and a couple of suburban sporting goods stores. They are warehousing larger quantities of Zubaz in Milwaukee just in case demand grows.

Finally, Stock and Truax are targeting males in their teens to early 20s who are looking for novelty or retro apparel. They have given away Zubaz to a few high school football and hockey teams as free advertising.

"We've done nothing traditional to market them as yet," Stock said. "We have no expectation that we're going to do $160 million again. We'd be happy if we did a million dollars worth of sales."

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.

"We're getting a lot of [e-mails] saying I'm so glad they're back -- my wife threw mine out," Stock said.

One surprise this time around, he said, is the number of girls or women who are buying Zubaz. There was a run just before Christmas from women buying them for their husbands or boyfriends. Other women want them for themselves.

"Dearest Geniuses of Zubaz," one 19-year-old Green Bay Packers fan from Wausau, Wis., wrote last month. "Twelve years ago, I was given my first pair of Zubaz. They were incredible. I wore my green-and-gold striped pants to school with pride. "But now I am unable to locate a similar pair ANYWHERE!

"I've been ... trying to find a new or used pair of these beautiful pieces of apparel. ... It seems as though they are as lost as the Viking's chances at the Super Bowl. ... If there are ANY Packer flavored Zubaz left in existence, I would love to know."

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280