Church ladies in the Detroit area knew Luke Song's work, even if they didn't know his name. He's been designing hats they love for the past two decades. And now everyone knows his work, because Aretha Franklin showcased it at Barack Obama's inauguration while singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee." The gray wool cloche dramatically trimmed with a huge crystal-embellished bow became an instant bestseller. Song's sister, Lillian, said they've been working night and day to keep up with orders.
Ha making is the family business that Song's parents started, and he had no intention of pursuing it himself -- his undergrad major was biochemistry. "But I realized I didn't like it," he said (while his other phones continued to ring off the hook with Easter orders). "That was somebody else's dream. I wanted my own." So he left Michigan State one semester shy of a degree.
He took classes in art and design at Parsons the New School for Design and joined the family shop on Woodward Avenue for what he thought was going to be "a little while" -- just until he paid off his student loans.
Then he found he had a gift for hats. The same principles that worked for sculpture worked fine for hat design.
Most of the shop's wares will wind up on the heads of "churchgoing ladies," Song said. "But we also sell to tea ladies, the Red Hat Society, and for events and occasions, like the Kentucky Derby and weddings."
Los Angeles, he said, is one of his biggest markets. "I think part of it is because a lot of fashion interest has moved from New York to Los Angeles," he mused. "The population is more diverse there. And there are more big churches, where hats are worn regularly. And there's a lot of money there." Which helps, because his designs start around $200 and can go far beyond that.
Song said he believes that the Queen of Soul's hat moment at the inauguration has not only helped his business but the millinery business in general. Adaptations (and rip-offs) of the hat are still selling like crazy. "I've heard from people in the industry that people [who hadn't been wearing hats] are noticing hats all of a sudden. I think it will be a big impact going forward."
Franklin's Song has been lent to the Smithsonian until President Obama's own library is built. Then it will move there to be permanently displayed.
Parodies of the big bow have appeared in comedy sketches and on the Internet -- and that's fine with Song. "It's keeping hats in the public's consciousness," he said. "And some of those jokes are really funny!"