Tuesday 23 January 2018

Getting dressed for Oscar night success

Monika Abrahamson attends the Oscars tonight with her husband Lenny. She tells Liadan Hynes the story behind her dress

Glammed up: Monika Abrahamson - in the dress she will be wearing to the Oscars - with Dublin designer Helen Cody
Glammed up: Monika Abrahamson - in the dress she will be wearing to the Oscars - with Dublin designer Helen Cody

When we heard his name Lenny said 'did they just say Lenny Abrahamson? Did they just say my name?' At this point I was screaming my head off. It was incredible." Monika and her husband, director Lenny Abrahamson, were at home when they found out that his film Room, based on Emma Donoghue's book of the same name, had garnered four Oscar nominations, including a best director nomination for Abrahamson.

"We did not expect him to be nominated," explains Monika, who originally moved here from Poland after meeting Lenny. "When it did happen we were absolutely out of our minds." The next day, Monika packed her family - she and Lenny have two children, Max, seven, and Nell, five - off on a ski holiday in Italy.

"I thought it would be good to just come down," she says, describing the relentless effort required of Lenny in the lead-up to the nominations.

"I remember somebody warned him, 'So, will your family move to LA for this few months?' And we were like, 'Why would we move?' It ended up with him being there almost all the time. And he would come back for a few days, absolutely exhausted. He couldn't even smile. Because you have to be optimistic, day after day. He had days where he had interviews every seven minutes."

"It was a bit miserable," she says of the months apart, - although it was worth it, she adds, with a proud smile. "It was lonely for both of us. So I thought, 'Ok, that's it.' So we went to Italy. A very basic apartment. It was quite dusty, he got allergic, our car broke down in the middle of the mountains. The usual stuff."

When it came to the filming of Room - four months in Canada - Monika and the children had gone with Lenny, something she says worked well, and which they will definitely do again for any long shoots. For now, Monika is a stay-at-home mother. "Frankly, I was thinking about maybe doing something, but with Lenny's career it's impossible," she reveals. "I notice most directors' wives don't work, and I know why."

Whilst the holiday provided some welcome down time, it wasn't long before anxiety set in. The Oscars must trump every other possible occasion for creating outfit anxiety, even a woman's wedding day.

"I realised 'God, I don't have a dress,' she recalls.

"I said, 'Lenny, I have no idea, you have to help me. Because you know people.'" Most importantly, Lenny knew Helen Cody, a Dublin designer known for her stunning designs. It was she who put Sarah Greene in that yellow dress at last year's Iftas, and it was a Helen Cody dress that Stephanie Roche famously wore to the Ballon D'Or awards. "There is this woman I know," the director told his wife. "She's fabulous. We've known each other for years. But I don't think she would be interested. She is probably too busy."

Helen, sitting beside Monika on the couch in her beautiful canalside cottage, erupts with laughter at the notion that she might have been too busy. "Lenny was so lovely," Helen says. "He texted me and said, 'Look, is there any way you could give Monika some advice? No pressure and if you don't want to that's totally cool.' I said 'What, do you mean make her the dress of her dreams? Of course I will.'"

The dress is fully corseted with a bias-cut skirt. Made from an Italian silk crepe, Helen gold-leafed the tips of the feathers on the bodice. The cuffs were made by ESL Jewellery, and John Farrington is lending pieces of jewellery.

Monika says she feels completely confident in Helen's design. This is the first time she has had a dress made for her. "I feel very guilty about spending too much on clothes. It's easier with kids. With myself, I always think 'Oh, do I need to?' But with this, you need something."

As a fulltime mum, her wardrobe doesn't lend itself to red carpet occasions. Her good friend Caroline O'Meara arranged an appointment with the Harvey Nichols personal shoppers to put together a wardrobe for the trip - although she has attended numerous events now with her husband. "It's not my thing at all." Lenny's mum Edna will also attend the Oscars.

She loves the make-up for our shoot by Brown Sugar, and takes a photo to show the team who will look after her for the Oscars ceremony. Such pampering hasn't always been the case. Years ago, for a trip to Cannes, she had her hair done in Ireland, and tried to "carry it through the night," she says, laughing at the memory. Unsurprisingly, "it was a complete disaster."

It's little wonder this beautiful, vivacious Polish woman bowled Lenny over instantly. The couple met at the Warsaw Film Festival. Monika, a former film studies student, was working there; Lenny had brought his film Adam and Paul. She attended a screening of his film, a story of two Dublin junkies. "I was so moved by it. I had spent some time among people who are addicted and I know how it is." She cried for two hours afterwards, before deciding she had to meet this man.

"I thought, naively, 'I'm sure he's not appreciated,'" she laughs. "That I was the first tall blonde eastern European to compliment him. So that's exactly what I did at the party. I said, 'You don't know me, my name is Monika, I just saw your film and I think you're a genius'. And I remember Lenny's reaction was, 'Well now I think I have to marry you.'"

They talked all night, about film, how many children they wanted "the way we liked to live, what's important for us." The next day Lenny returned to Dublin, but they stayed in touch by email. At first, one a day, but after a week or two Monika would spend entire days emailing her future husband. "It's quite old-fashioned. We couldn't see each other, but we got to know each other really well."

Roughly three months after the first meeting, she moved to Dublin."I was 30, he was almost reaching 40 and at this age you kind of know. We clicked from the very beginning."

They didn't move in together immediately: "I'm very independent, and I don't think it would have worked." The plan was to give it a year, if it went well, move in, "get kids" she explains in her heavily accented English. "And it really worked. It's been amazing and Lenny's an incredible person."

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