The color comes from row upon row of custom-designed ladies’ hats, from unassuming berets to the kind of lavishly decorated headgear seen at the races at Ascot. The sound of the phone is thanks to Aretha Franklin, who stepped to a microphone at President Obama’s inauguration in January wearing an eye-catching gray fur felt hat trimmed with a huge sloping, rhinestone bow.
Now, the hat’s creator, Luke Song, has more than 5,000 orders for the spring version of the Aretha Hat (he declines to make a replica of the actual model), available in a variety of pastel colors and selling for $179 apiece.
And more orders are bound to pour in because Mr. Song learned this week that Ms. Franklin has decided to lend her hat to the Smithsonian, where it will be on display until it moves to a permanent place in Mr. Obama’s presidential library.
While the nation had no idea what would be on Ms. Franklin’s head, Mr. Song knew it would be one of three models she had picked out. He learned which one only while watching her sing at the inauguration on the television in his crowded workroom.
“I’m so glad she chose that one.” he said. “It was the one I was pushing her to wear.”
Interest in Mr. Song’s work has exploded so much that he expects his business, Moza Incorporated, which recorded $1 million in sales during 2008, to do six to seven times more than that this year. Mr. Song would like to double his workforce, currently at 11 people, if he could find more experienced seamstresses.
The only hitch, he said, is that millinery “is a dead art.” And indeed, Mr. Song, who estimates that he is one of about a dozen custom milliners in the country, is, in a sense, an accidental milliner.
As a young man, Mr. Song, 36, had no intention of taking over the business his parents, Han and Jin Song, started after emigrating from South Korea in 1982. After studying biochemistry in college, he left one semester short of a degree to pursue art studies at Parsons the New School for Design in New York.
When his parents refused to pay for more schooling, he sold a prized cello to pay for classes. He became so immersed in his new field that friends were convinced he would become a painter, Mr. Song said.
But he became burdened with student loans and had no evident way to pay them off. The answer, he found, lay in hats.
An early success came in a hat he designed from a chicken-wire base and covered with silk, chiffon and trimmings. Word of the creation, which cost $200 and up, flew through the hat world.
Boosted by that success, Mr. Song paid off his student loans and decided to embrace a millinery career, seeing in it a parallel to the principles of sculpture that he had studied in New York.
Today, he is helped by his parents, who supervise a cramped workroom where six women turn out about 100 hats a day, many to his customers’ specifications. Despite the volume, the work is painstaking; one seamstress’s time is devoted entirely to applying lace.
His sister, Lillian, manages orders (and her brother’s interview schedule). “We haven’t slept since the inaugural,” she said.
One irritant is that Mr. Song has already seen the Aretha Hat copied by competitors, with varying degrees of success. What imitators do not understand, he explained, is the hat’s construction.
The spring version is made from yards of reinforced silk ribbon, first stitched into a circle from the center outward, and then shaped over a hat form so that it becomes a cap.
Then, Mr. Song builds up the front of the hat, steaming the fabric to create a sort of ledge that slopes down to the back. Without the extra structure, the bow would simply sink; with it, the decoration sits firmly in place, drawing attention above the wearer’s eyes, the hat elevating the entire face.
Ms. Franklin, a customer for 20 years, is the best known of Mr. Song’s avid buyers, who wear their hats to churches, synagogues and tea parties, and often display them in transparent boxes in their homes.
Entering his shop “is like eye candy for a woman,” said Crisette Ellis, the wife of Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, the pastor of Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, and one of the city’s most prominent churchwomen.
Mrs. Ellis, who owns three Mr. Song hats, said she was surprised at the fuss over Ms. Franklin’s hat, which she considered to be subdued. “In the black community, women wear hats, and sometimes the more ‘bling bling’ you have, the better,” she said.
Mr. Song’s hats are generally priced from $200 to $900, but he does accommodate more modest budgets, too.
On a recent afternoon, he did a brisk business in tams, two for $10, while he offered generous discounts on his remaining stock of winter hats.
But his future may lie in loftier circles: the Aretha Hat apparently caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth, he confided, although Buckingham Palace has yet to place an order.
His ideal customer, though, is a little closer to home. Mr. Song said he would love to sell a hat to Michelle Obama, although she does not seem to have embraced hats — at least, not yet.
“That would be the best day of my life,” he said. “The best.”