The Story Behind This Syrian Refugee's Oscar's Dress Will Warm Your Heart

Photo: PAUL BUCK/EPA/REX/Shutterstock.
It wasn’t until a number of days ago that producers could pull the trigger on buying Syrian refugee Hala Kamil's ticket to the States for the 89th annual Academy Awards. Kamil is the star of Watani: My Homeland, the epic story of one family’s escape from war-torn Syria and their attempt to make a new life in Germany. The short film is nominated for Best Short Documentary, and projected to take the Oscar. However, President Trump's temporary travel ban nearly put a wrench in her attendance at this Sunday's awards show, which also put what Kamil would wear on the red carpet on pause.

Watani was nominated on a Tuesday morning, and that Friday, the travel ban was enacted. According to one of the film's representatives, Hayley Pappas, the special moment was "a flurry of media and celebration," until the ban hit. "When the film was nominated, Hala was in the states in New York for a separate awards ceremony with the film's director, Marcel Mettelsiefen. By chance, she flew back [to her country] on that Thursday, the literal night before," Pappas recanted to Refinery29. And due to the rumors of possibly another ban, Kamil and the team remained in a state of limbo. "Even today, everyone's walking on eggshells, hoping everything goes smoothly."

Upon booking her return flight, Kamil found an image of a dress she wanted online. But due to several hurdles, no one was able to create something that both satisfied Kamil's stylistic ideas and in such a tight timeframe. The search grew from thrilling to frantic. "Along with the quick turnaround, the fact that Kamil is a practicing Muslim and requires modest dressing made the search for a designer that much more difficult. We needed a dress that would cover everything, along with a hijab she'd wear with it," Pappas explained.

"And since she's probably the only Syrian refugee woman on the red carpet, she wanted to wear something that sent a specific message." Kamil didn't want to look "stereotypical" or "extremist" in a any way, but envisioned her moment on the carpet as one that sent a progressive message, all while being "glamorous" and "elegant" at the same time. "She’s a strong and independent woman, so that was important to her: to be relatable, as she’s a mother of four and just happens to wear a hijab — that’s it," Pappas said.
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Kamil is also outside of the typical sample size range most designers model their samples off of, so it wasn't like they could pull whatever they wanted from myriad of showrooms, which would have been a lot quicker. As a last resort, a friend put the call out for a last resort-style tweet for help. With the help of more than a few retweets and shares, the response was overwhelming. "People started putting the word out on their personal pages and reposting it left and right. It just took off. Next thing you know, designers, stylists, and celebrities were calling, tweeting, and emailing offering help."

Out of all of the emails Team Watani received, it was designer Brandon Maxwell's response that stood out. Maxwell was stylist to Lady Gaga until he branched out and started his own eponymous label in 2015, and has since become a standout in the fashion industry. Per Pappas, it was Maxwell who was the first to step up to the plate with a real offer. The designer said he could make it exactly how Kamil wanted it and turn it around in time.

"His email was so nice and sincere, and we didn't realize who he was until we Googled him. 'Don’t worry, I have a team of girls who can make this happen,' he said. Hala started sending photos of flowers and asking about colors; it’s become the sweetest experience of her life," Pappas said. Maxwell dressed Gaga for last year's ceremony when the singer was nominated for Best Original Song for her 'Til It Happens To You' ballad.
And there she was, tonight, on the red carpet at the Oscars, wearing custom Brandon Maxwell along with a made-to-order hijab that will forever be her own. The ensemble is very reminiscent of what Kamil wanted, and in purple, the color of Kamil's favorite flower. (It's a favorite of Maxwell's mother, too.) Purple is also a symbolic color of equality and anti-bullying, and in line with this season's velvet trend, nonetheless. The designer posted his sentiments on the touching moment to his Instagram as Kamil took the carpet.

"Seeing her walk the red carpet full of confidence and elegance, and being a small part of her special night means the world to me. She used to stay up with her husband every year and watch the Oscars from her home in Aleppo, which has now been destroyed, and tonight she walks the carpet," he wrote. The moment was made possible by Jamie Mizrahi, a stylist friend of Maxwell who dresses A-listers from Katy Perry to Leighton Meester and Nicole Richie. Pappas ended: "And there they were — all working together, at 6am, holding up fabrics, asking 'how’s this one,' and 'does she like this,' etc. It’s become precious and adorable."