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Aretha’s Designer Visits Berkeley Hat Company

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 07:30:00 PM
Luke Song designed the hat Aretha Franklin wore at President Obama’s inauguration.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Luke Song designed the hat Aretha Franklin wore at President Obama’s inauguration.

Aretha Franklin’s hat. Three little words that stirred up a lot of excitement for avid hat buyers in Berkeley last week. 

The attention revolved around Luke Song, the Detroit milliner who created the gray felt rhinestone-studded big bow hat that became an instant sensation when the Queen of Soul took to the microphone to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. 

Song was in the Bay Area for two days and visited Telegraph Avenue’s Berkeley Hat Company Friday, April 24, to meet owners Carol Lipnick and Ed Dougherty and their customers. Lipnick and Dougherty have been buying hats from Song for eight years. 

The son of Korean immigrants, Song came to the United States at the age of 9. Initially, he had very little interest in his parents’ hat business in Detroit. Instead, he studied biochemistry at Michigan State University, but dropped out a semester shy of graduation to pursue art at the Parsons school of design in New York. 

“Art was something I always had my heart set on, even though many people warned me it would not lead to a secure job,” he said. “But I stopped listening to people—I must have had some kind of epiphany—and decided to go with my heart and give it 200 percent.” 

Song wanted to leave Parsons and complete his studies in Paris, but the burden of student loans deterred him. Instead, Song took a six-month hiatus to help his mother with the family store, Mr. Song Millinery.  

His first hat was made from chicken wire he bought at Home Depot. The hat made quite a splash in the world of headgear and sold for $200. 

“I wanted to make something beautiful out of something that was not,” he said. “As soon as I saw the chicken wire, I knew it was going to be a hat. I sold 10 of them in a week.” 

Within six months, Song was able to pay off his student loans for six years of college. 

“That woke me up,” he said, and as one success after the other followed, Song forgot all about school and about Paris, though he frequented that city’s Pret à Porter fashion shows to meet hat designers from all over Europe. 

When Aretha Franklin, one of Song’s longtime customers, called him this year before visiting his store, he knew something was up. 

“She always comes without any notice,” he said. “But this time she called. When she told me she was going to wear one of my hats to the inauguration, I went from being thrilled to honored to scared to death. I knew it was going to be seen by a billion people.” 

Song said that he had expected reactions to range from “Wow, look at that hat,” but he was quite unprepared for the amount of interest it sparked. 

“It’s almost like everyone woke up the next day and realized there are hats in the world—that it can be a fashion statement,” he said. “And now we can’t keep up with the demand.” 

Song has so far had more than 5,000 orders for the Aretha Hat, and requests continue to flood his store every day, where he works with his parents and his sister. 

For all his celebrity status—interviews on CBS, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Spanish Vogue—Song retains his unassuming demeanor, chatting easily with the women who came to see him at the Berkeley hat shop, eager to wear his creations to church, to parties and fashion shows. 

Some were disappointed to learn that Song would not be duplicating Franklin’s hat—which is now on display at the Smithsonian—but calmed down when they saw the replicas he was selling for $179. 

“The difference is going to be in the material,” Song said. “Aretha’s hat is going to be the only one in felt.” 

Donatella Carta, who teaches French at Berkeley High School, tried on the Aretha Hat with Song’s help. 

“I think it’s great, although I probably won’t have a place to wear it to,” she said. “And I am too short, anyway.” 

Lipnick stood in a corner greeting longtime patrons who had come to swap fashion tips with Song. A kaleidoscope of colors, her store has been a fixture on Dwight and Telegraph for 29 years. 

As Basque berets, straw fedoras, Panamas, hat feathers and brushes flew off the shelves, Lipnick’s husband Dougherty talked about how the two of them had turned a little business into “the hat store for Northern California.” 

“The first time we sold hats was at the Live Oak Fair in 1977,” Dougherty said. “And that’s about how much money we made: $77. Then we decided to make some of our own hats.” 

Marcia Poole, another Berkeley resident, said she had been totally knocked out by Aretha Franklin’s hat. 

“When I heard Luke Song was going to be here, I had to be here,” she said, trying out a hat called “The Fascinator.” 

Brenda Bruner, another Song fan, donned one of his hats and shrieked with delight when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. 

“Oh my god, I want you to ship it to me ASAP,” she said, fawning over a little cake hat. “I love it, love, it, love it—except I want it in champagne.” 

Song promised to ship it to her in two weeks. 

Bruner, a consultant with the Oakland Unified School District, has been buying hats from Lipnick and Dougherty for three decades. 

“You can do anything with a beautiful hat,” she said. “Hats are classy. They remind me of the ’40s—people dressed in hats, gloves and raw silk. You can look like a million dollars in a hat that costs a dime.”