Sal Herman's Suspender Business is Picking Up
TAKING A HOLD: Sal Herman’s suspenders company has seen its ups and downs, but it’s going at a good clip now
Brace yourself: Did you have any idea that the largest manufacturer of made-in-the-USA suspenders is in Southfield?
For that matter, did you have any idea that anybody cared about suspenders anymore? Well, Sal Herman does.
Herman, founder of the HoldUp Suspender Company, knows his product is far more than the exclusive accessory of truckers, farmers, skiers, groomsmen, and Larry King. However, even though Herman predicts HoldUp should break $2 million in sales this year and move as many as 100,000 pairs of suspenders, he readily concedes that he’s not riding the cutting edge of fashion.
“They’re not really that popular,” he acknowledges. “To be honest with you, I never see anybody wearing them. Not just my suspenders. I never see anyone wearing anybody’s suspenders. And I know I’m not the only one selling them.”
If there is an appeal for Suspender Sal’s brand — available online at suspenders.com and in more than 2,300 hardware, sporting goods, and other retail stores nationwide — it may be his patented “no-slip” clip, the first of five patents Herman has received for improving the functionality of suspenders.
His are the first U.S. patents granted to anyone to make suspenders better in more than 115 years.
While working as a pattern and model maker for the auto industry in downtown Detroit decades ago, Herman, 66, encountered the primary defect with most conventional braces. “I kept my measuring tape, square, straight edge, and everything else in my pockets and my pants would continuously fall down, so I started wearing suspenders,” he says. “They didn’t work.”
That’s because the clips would slip instead of grip. “Metal fatigue set in after three or four weeks, or depending on how cheap they were, the first day you bought them,” Herman says. “Every time I would bend over, the damn clips would flip off the back of my pants. Then I came up with what you might call a better mousetrap.”
After considerable trial and error, he landed on the simple notion of placing a thumbtack inside the clip to secure it into the waistband. “I tried to pull it out and said, ‘Hey, this sucker ain’t moving!’ ” he recalls. Herman refined his improvement into a needle-thin “locking center pin” in 1974. “It’s such a simple thing, but in 100 years nobody had ever come up with the idea,” he marvels. “It’s amazing.” However, he didn’t apply to patent his innovation until 1988. Patenting an invention, you see, takes money. “Between my wife and I, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Herman says. “We didn’t have any money until ’88.”
He left his pattern-making job in 1975 to launch his own business, Industrial Paramedical Services Inc., which provides mobile clinics to conduct OSHA-mandated hearing tests to factory workers in Michigan and other Midwest states. His company eventually began turning enough profit for Herman to feel comfortable returning to his suspenders obsession. “I got my patent in 1990; it took me two years,” he says. “Then I tried to sell the patent and live the American way, off the royalties, but nobody wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole. I really don’t know why. But I knew it worked, so I said if nobody wants it, I’m going to make them myself.”
It took Herman another six years to develop what he calls “a commercial-grade, quality product to put in the market. I had never been in this business before, so I had to start from scratch. It was a whole big major process, and major cost.”
Today, Herman, who emigrated with his family from Israel at 11, offers 220 styles of HoldUp suspenders — featuring his no-slip clips with a lifetime guarantee — including models for teens, girls, bikers, and pregnant women. His latest brainchild is a super-soft pair made to be worn underneath one’s clothing, called Under-Ups.
“This is the hottest thing we’ve ever had,” he says. “Over the years I noticed people were buying three or four pairs of white suspenders at a time. I asked one guy why, and he said, I put them under my white shirts because I don’t like to show my suspenders.’ I said, ‘Well, let me come up with something better.’ Now people are buying them in bunches, like you’d buy underwear or socks, and I know what they’re doing with them: They stick them on their pants and don’t take them off.”
He’s even developed a line of slacks and jeans called Sloops, for loopless pants, specifically designed to be worn with suspenders. Herman says they’re intended to flatter the physique of the typical male suspenders wearer — no hips, no rear end. “If he doesn’t wear suspenders, you’ll see him doing one thing,” Herman says. “He’ll be talking with one hand and holding up his pants with the other.”
Photograph by Martin Vecchio