It was the hat that reigned triumphant at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.
That day, Aretha Franklin performed “My Country, 'Tis of Thee,” and the world went wild for her grey felt hat with an extravagant bow that perfectly framed her face, and which was dotted with Swarovski crystals.
The hat’s designer, Luke Song, told The Daily Beast that hearing of Franklin's death, aged 76, on Thursday had made it “one of the saddest days. She was an amazing woman.”
Song told The Daily Beast that Franklin had first come to his Detroit store twenty years ago. He had made hundreds of hats for her during that time, the inauguration hat of 2009 being the most famous.
“She always had a great sense of style,” Song, 45, said. “The only way I can describe it is that she was Detroit: everything about her was Detroit. She represented Detroit so well: in her songs, in her sense of style, everything about her. It just represented Detroit to me. I really can’t put my finger on how I can describe her sense of style in any other way than that.”
Song laughed as he recalled Franklin’s first visit to the store. “I don’t know how she had heard of me. Maybe word of mouth. I’d known her songs for years of course, ever since I can remember. She walked in and of course you just can’t believe your eyes. You know someone for their songs for years and you never expect to meet them in person, and there she was in person, bigger than life.”
When Franklin came to Song’s Detroit store, he recalled, “The entire block came to a standstill. She made quite a presence. She didn’t travel alone. She came with an entourage, and it was always a pleasure to see her.”
Franklin may have been the pre-eminent stage diva, but she was not in real life, Song recalled.
“She was very cordial and very softly spoken, as if she had been in our shop for years,” Song remembered. “She just went around, chose what she wanted, it was as simple as that. There was very little spoken, and then over the years more and more. Every time she came in she wanted something specific. It was very unique. We always had to scramble, and make things just to her liking.”
The conversations Song recalled having with Franklin were all about fashion.
“Of course, all you can think about is, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m talking to Aretha Franklin!’ I’m very fortunate. I’m one of most fortunate guys in the world.”
Song laughed softly again. “Then the inauguration! She just walked right on in as usual and said, ‘I need a hat for the inauguration!’ And, of course, you’re kind of floored about that. What do you do on such an occasion? It left me scrambling, but I think the result speaks for itself. She just gives you a task and you just do it. It just came to me.”
Franklin bought the coat she was wearing on the day, and Song “just went from there.” He prepared three different hats for Franklin to wear for the occasion, he told The Daily Beast: one with fur, one with a topper, and the one that Franklin ended up wearing.
“That one was chosen because of the cold and because of the sun. You just leave everything in the lap of the fashion gods. Everything was out of my hands. It was chosen by the circumstances.”
The base of the hat is a structured beret made out of felt, he said. The bow is a long piece of felt, made into a bow and adorned with crystals.
“Something I know she loves is bling,” Song said, chuckling warmly. “Oh yes, she’s known for her bling of course. Go bling or go home. She didn't say that, but you know. She just loved her bling. All I wanted to do, knowing Miss Franklin, was know what she usually likes and then best represent her and her personality, and follow how she would like to be represented. We had very little time. She was off to Washington, and it was as simple as that. It was nothing really complicated.”
Franklin was concerned about her voice, singing on such a cold day.
“She wanted to be warm,” said Song. “That was a big concern, so she had a tall collar and she wanted the hat to be warm as well, so I used really thick felt. I made sure she was warm, and she said she was warm.”
Song stayed in Detroit, and Franklin drove from Washington to Detroit with the hat.
“The rest is history,” said Song softly. “When I saw her wearing her it, I probably had two minutes of appreciation and then my phone started ringing. It was an incredible moment. I still can’t grasp what happened even to this day. I shared in one of our country’s biggest events, and I’m so privileged to have shared it with Miss Franklin.”
Song, whose family is originally from Seoul, came to live in the United States when he was a boy. He originally studied to be a biochemist, but wanted to pursue a more creative path and switched to studying fine arts at Parsons School of Design in New York City.
Modest and discreet, he declines to name other famous names in his clientele beyond “The Clark Sisters and others in the gospel community.” Millinery, he said, is “fulfilling, challenging. Every day is different. Every day is fun. This is not even a job. It’s a fun-filled career. I get to travel the world doing it. There’s not much more I can ask for.”
He started his business, Mr. Song Millinery in 1998, and designs every piece himself. He used to employ around 20 people, but now has a staff of just 3, with the business as of three months ago “now completely online.” People call for appointments. The store where Franklin used to come is no more.
The exposure that came with designing the inauguration hat changed Song’s life.
“Oh my goodness, of course. I met new friends. I had articles and interviews all over the world. It absolutely changed by life, all thanks to Miss Franklin.”
After the inauguration, Song ran into Franklin at a fundraiser, though never crossed paths again. However, she continued to call him to commission more hats, such as for the Kentucky Derby and for Whitney Houston’s funeral which she did not ultimately attend.
After it being loaned to the Smithsonian, Franklin said she wanted the 2009 inauguration hat to be placed in Barack Obama’s presidential library, which is scheduled to open in Chicago in 2020.
Song recalled that Franklin’s next birthday cake after the inauguration was in the shape of the famous hat. Song’s own copy is on permanent display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Song’s phone started ringing as soon as Franklin’s death was announced, and his sadness and affection for her is tangible as we speak. Their conversations, Song said, involved “not a lot of words exchanged. She didn't want a lot of colors in her hats. She was muted in her tones. But then, she didn’t have to be colorful. She was already very colorful. All her songs are colorful and amazing. So, her hats were very muted in their tones.”
He paused, then laughed again.
“But don't forget the bling. She loved her bling, absolutely.”