Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Hat Designer Remembers the Late Singer: ‘She Was Classy All the Way’

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, died on Thursday at the age 76 of advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type. And ever since the news broke, moving tributes have been pouring in remembering the legendary singer and her most memorable performances. From her five-minute-long national anthem at a 2016 Detroit Lions game to her Blues Brothers cameo, she’s had many unforgettable moments, but there is one image from recent years that people will always remember — and it has to do with her style.

During Franklin’s performance at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, her Swarovski-crystal-studded hat immediately stole the show and became the day’s most popular meme. And the designer behind the topper, Luke Song of Mr. Song Millinery, spoke to PEOPLE about his close relationship with the Queen.

“I’ve known her at least 20 years … she’s been frequenting our showroom for as long as I can remember. I’ve made hundreds of hats for her,” says the Detroit-based designer who often made hats for Franklin to wear to church.

“She would come into the showroom and she definitely knew what she wanted. A lot of times she brought in her own designs and brought in pictures and references,” Song remembers.

Song also recalls the design process for the now-iconic hat. “She brought in her coat and she said it needed to be warm for the occasion because it was outdoors, and so just on that alone, I made three different designs for her. She chose the one that ended up being the most popular and viral,” he explains.

The hat became so famous, Franklin actually loaned it to the Smithsonian, where Michelle Obama’s inauguration wardrobe also went on display.

But Song had no idea the item would cause the sensation as it did.

“I imagined it was going to be somewhat attention-getting. It was 2009 and social media had just exploded… who’d of thought it would be one of the first memes out there?” he tells PEOPLE. “I literally had two minutes to appreciate what had happened and the phone started ringing off the hook!”

And despite the fact that the star always arrived to his studio in a big white limo with her entourage in tow, Song says Franklin was “very down to earth and very personable.”

Adding: “She was so soft-spoken and nothing like what I expected. She was classy all the way. I’m very fortunate to have her as a customer. It was a privilege.”

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