We talked to the founder of the infamous pant about the rise and fall of his empire.
Art by. Noel Ransome
Twenty years ago, Modrobes were Canada's most hallowed pant. For a Canadian kid in the late 90s and early 2000s (and readers of VICE magazine), the most ubiquitous signifier of cool was the brand of baggy buckle clip pants that came in every colour. Many remember it as the time of bucket hats, of hair gel used with crunchy abandon, and of pants whose colours could outshine the sun. Yet while chokers, track pants, and flatforms have bounced back into mainstream fashion's 90s revival, the Modrobe is notably absent—a true throwback to a time that can never be fully reproduced.
We owe the poly-cotton pseudo-scrubs to Steven Sal Debus, who made his name as the king of rave pants before the age of 30, and lost his empire by the early 2000s. "People say, 'party like it's 1999,' and it really felt like that at that time," Debus, 47, who now calls Vancouver home, told VICE. "I always thought of it as the second hippie generation. It was the music, which was electronic music; the drugs, which was ecstasy. Everything was new: tech was new, fashion was new, the drugs were new, the music was new."
In his hometown of Sarnia, Ontario, Debus was the kid who dyed his Catholic school uniform the loudest possible colours. At Brock University in St. Catharines in the early 90s, he took an entrepreneurship class where he proposed what would become Modrobes' precursor: he called them "Exam Pants," a cheap, comfortable, and indestructible pant inspired by hospital scrubs, that a university student could live in for four years. For his project, his professor gave him a 70.
But Debus was convinced his idea was worth much more. After university, he approached a Toronto manufacturer of hospital scrubs, who eventually agreed to make 200 pairs of Debus' prototype—and the Modrobes brand was born. Debus and his friends started selling Modrobes in 1996 on university campuses, where they set up tables outside cafeterias and sold pants. At night, they'd hit the university bars and hand out stickers that read "I want you in my pants." They built a reputation on excess, and held dance contests where the drunkest dancers could win a free pair.
While word started to spread about these mysterious, exclusive pants on university campuses, Debus' friends in the rave scene started selling Modrobes at shows, where they were an instant hit, and drove the brand to produce even louder colours and styles.
Robin Squiggy Dutt, who grew up in Burlington, Ontario, remembers how Modrobes became part of his identity as the alt-rock concert-going son of Indian immigrants in the late 90s. "By the time I found my clique in highschool, my wardrobe consisted of hospital pants that my mother, a doctor with her own practice, would bring home from the hospital for me—and a selection of concert t-shirts of Our Lady Peace, Econoline Crush, and Everclear. Then, I found Modrobes, the only logical step.
"My collection of comfy pants grew and grew," says Dutt, who owned pairs in orange, yellow, red, blue, black, and lime green with Japanese symbols. "I was wearing Modrobes every day of the week. In winter I would wear longjohns underneath. In high school, it allowed this brown boy to have an identity strictly his own. Loud and proud... I had created an individual character that didn't quite fit default stereotypes. Brilliant in the field of math, while wearing phat-ass neon pants."
Jessica Dubeau remembers Modrobes at Edgefest, where the Modrobes crew would tour with the festival across Canada every summer, building temporary two-storey stores out of scaffolding. When it rained, they held mudslide contests and mud wrestling competitions, and awarded free pants and hats to the winners.
"If you think of Biff Naked in 'Moment of Weakness' or Gwen Stefani in No Doubt's 'Just a Girl', they were my style idols," says Dubeau. "So when I got Modrobes, that's what it felt like.
"I remember the day I bought my yellow Modrobes—which were my favourite Modrobes. They were banana yellow, I mean, like, yellow. I was in the mall, bought them at Jean Machine, and then I bought the SoulDecision CD. And I loved it, because I noticed that the CD matched my Modrobes."
By 1998, Debus realized his dream of opening a store on Queen Street West in Toronto, in a tiny 500-square-foot space. "One Saturday, we had a line-up of fifty people outside of the door," Debus recalls. "The whole store was just rammed with people, and we were literally just handing pants out the door to people as they were throwing cash at us.
"All of a sudden we were doing a million dollars in sales within the first three years, and then it just kept going and going. We made so much money that we decided to just go rent a giant store and renovate it. I was like, let's build an angled floor, just to mess with people, and make it into some kind of crazy-ass runway thing." Debus hired designers from Montreal to build the 2,000-foot space, which opened in 1999—complete with angled floors and walls, and a massive DJ booth in the back. The project cost $250,000.
Of course, the love for Modrobes wasn't universal. Reflecting back on that period, people have told me they hated the pants and couldn't understand their popularity; others mention the pants never fit them properly. But to many, Modrobes were unquestionably cool, and drove the brand's breakneck success.
Mary Blakley was thirteen when she bought her first and only pair in 1999. "I knew that Modrobes were cool, but I never considered myself cool enough to wear them," she says. "I have a memory of pairing them with a Hawaiian print halter top purchased at Sirens, and some weird Sketchers sandals. I had serious angst about that outfit. Did I look cool? Did I look like a poser? Did I need to wear a bra?"
Moving into the second phase of their short history, Modrobes were a defining feature of the early 2000s. Alex Nursall remembers her wardrobe at the time: "My favourite way to style my bright orange pair was with a baby blue short-sleeved polyester blouse, a baby blue fleece vest, and a blue Baby-G watch. I also had a homemade necklace with 'WHATEVER' spelled out across it."
Looking back, Debus says the year 2000 changed everything. In 2000, Canada's regulations on imported goods opened up, and in poured multinational clothing retailers like Old Navy and H&M, out-pricing the Canadian-made Modrobe. Wholesale retailers like Jean Machine and Athletes World stopped buying product in favour of cheaper items manufactured abroad, while Modrobes' mall stores could no longer make rent. Then 9/11 happened, in the midst of Modrobes' expansion into the US, driving consumer habits down. By 2003, with the company $1.2M in debt, the aggressively party-powered mudslide that had been Modrobes' success story was officially over.
Some may remember the brief Modrobes comeback of 2010—when Debus returned to Toronto, flush with Dragon's Den investment, to rebrand the company as eco-friendly performance wear. But the brand was short-lived, and Debus soon moved back out west.
What's strange is that for a pant so ubiquitous twenty years ago, Modrobes have virtually disappeared in 2017. "Honestly, I've run out of my own Modrobes," says Debus, who currently freelances as a consultant and designer for clothing brands. "I only have one pair of black Modrobes to myself—it's extra-large and doesn't fit me, I'm a medium. So I've now officially run out of Modrobes pants."
With the 90s revival currently in full swing, an obvious question remains: will Modrobes capitalize on nostalgia-core and make one last comeback? "It would be fun," says Debus, who mentions he started considering the idea earlier this year. "I'd love to do a limited run for people. I'm about 30 percent there right now."
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