A neighbor of mine, an assistant to a power couple, always finds the most enchanting gifts. On my son Leonardo's first birthday, she gave him a pair of denim overalls embroidered with vintage cowboy patches and gold fringe. It was the cutest thing I had ever seen. One spring, she left a lantern at our doorstep adorned with hand-painted daffodils and stuffed with chocolate eggs. Then there was the storybook that came with a flashlight. Each page featured cutout drawings that you would shine the flashlight on to form shadows on the wall.
Where did she find these things?
"You know I can't tell you," she always chided me.
This year, facing another season of lackluster holiday gifting, I begged her to tell me how -- and where -- she shops for her employers' many celebrity friends. What she doesn't do is one-size-fits-all gifts.
"You have to think long and hard about the person receiving the gift," she says. For example, if they travel often, they are more likely to appreciate the latest flight accessory than, say, a season's subscription to the City Ballet, since they aren't going to be around to use it. If the person is super-feminine and is more likely to dine at Le Cirque than at Pastis, perhaps a Fortuny hand-printed cotton pillow from Françoise Nunnallé is the way to go.
Nunnallé, who only takes private appointments at her very frilly apartment (212-246-4281), hand-sews her cushions from seventeenth-century silks. "They are works of art," Nunnallé declares none too modestly. "I wouldn't recommend crushing them while you're watching TV." And considering their price -- upwards of $1,500 a pillow -- you wouldn't, either.
How did my neighbor -- let's call her Angie -- find her?
"An interior decorator tipped me off about her," she says. "I liked the fact that she carries one-of-a-kind stuff.
"In general, though, home-décor items can be hard," Angie explains. "You have to be a little generic unless you know the interior of someone's home or are sure of their aesthetic sense. The great thing about Françoise's pillows is their color. They're so subdued, they are like noncolor colors. They integrate with a lot of things."
"To a certain extent, you have to think along generic lines, like if weight's an issue, you don't buy a garment with a structured fit," she continues. "And then some things just hit you in the head, like pashmina two years ago. It was so new, it came in such great colors, and the price was right. It was rare and exclusive, there was something very exotic about it, and it transcended age."
Angie was introduced to pashmina by Aude Bronson-Howard, a costume designer who set up a thriving business, ABH Design (160 East 56th Street, tenth floor; 212-688-3764), importing and manufacturing everything from Belgian table linens to Scottish cashmere to velvet and silk sachets adorned with handmade flowers. But since last year, Angie has had her eye on Bronson-Howard's rabbit bouclé overcoat, her fur-trimmed ponchos and throws, her antique silk-charmeuse prints and cashmere wraps in breathtaking colors.
What about the pashmina pajamas offered for this holiday season?
"Nope," Angie says. "Pashmina is not a gift thing anymore. It's become something you buy for yourself." They're a bit too cliché, she explains, and send the wrong message. The gift, after all, reflects the giver as well.
Besides, you don't give a co-worker something as intimate as pajamas. Rather, it's about finding that balance between the personal and the professional.
At Accurate Engraving, a custom-engraving and silver-sales business (432 Park Avenue South, near 30th Street; 212-889-8980), Angie finds great corporate gifts. "Let's say I'm Revlon and I have a hundred buyers coming in and I need something special," she explains. "I might do a sterling-silver Post-it note holder with each of their names on it."
Accurate Engraving's Allen Bluestein can deliver from 12 to 1,500 of each item within a week. Bluestein also can imitate any type of penmanship, in any language -- which means he can custom-engrave even handwritten notes onto, say, a Tiffany-style silver frame, turning a classic gift into something infinitely more meaningful. "And of course, he's got the best prices for silver and pewter around," says Angie. "And he works with you to come up with that perfect item or idea that symbolizes something special."
If the relationship is not rigidly defined, sometimes the recipient's circumstances are. For couples expecting a baby, Angie often turns to Tara Brivic at Z'Baby (996 Lexington Avenue, at 72nd Street; 212-472-baby). "She puts together gift baskets that look personally selected," says Angie. "These are not your run-of-the-mill layettes." Brivic obsesses over every detail of her baskets, from the hand-painted bibs and Petit Elephant print onesies inside to the tulle wrapping. She's made them for Madonna, Will Smith, and Celine Dion, imparting a personal touch to each basket; for Smith, she even included a pair of black sunglasses.
For a layette that has more of an heirloom quality, Angie refers to Rosi Zingales of Studio Rouge (by appointment only; 212-989-8363), a costume designer who started turning out blankets made of vintage handkerchiefs a few years ago. Now she makes two varieties of baby accessories, Hanky Blanky and Animal Wrappers, waffle-weave hooded towels, and mitts with little gingham lambs and the like sewn on.
"With her it's totally unique and you can have the baby's name and birth date embroidered on," says Angie. "You're also giving something that looks like it came from grandma's attic. It's hand-sewn, it's quilty, it's like handing down a family patchwork. You give something personal like this to someone you're really close with."
But there are times when she falls back on simple luxuries: Three weeks before Christmas, she scours the city in a radio car, running into places like FAO Schwarz ("I call them in advance and just run in to pick up"), Waterworks for bath products, Aedes De Venustas on Christopher Street for candles and room fragrance, Manhattan Fruitier for food baskets, Loro Piana for cashmere, Pratesi for linens and towels, and others, depending on her list. The hardest part, she says, is packing and shipping gifts off to her employers' often far-flung friends.
With her fuzzy Jack Russell Terrier, Eldridge, perched on her lap, Virginia Webster, a celebrity stylist, is cruising the East Village in a black Lincoln town car searching for the perfect gift for someone who really doesn't need anything.
"Go down Allen Street, make a left on Grand, and then cruise up Orchard Street until I tell you to stop," she says hoarsely to the driver. "The Lower East Side is where I always begin."
To her, holiday shopping isn't a one-stop affair at Bloomie's or Macy's. With an A-list clientele of rockers and stage, screen, and television stars, and socialites from coast to coast, she must seek out the new, the exclusive, the chic.