Christmas Confidential

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.

“It’s about mixing Armani with the cool, eclectic stuff,” she explains. “I also have my own network of private showrooms, antique dealers, tailors, cobblers, and craftsmen, and divine and groovy stores.”

We pull up in front of Hello, Sari (261 Broome Street; 212-274-0791), a tiny storefront on Broome Street painted an improbable shade of pale pink and a trove of rare Indian textiles, jewelry, and beads. The boutique – a little box filled with mirrored fabrics, golden caftans, Pakistani shoes lining the periphery, bowls of bangles in every conceivable shade, and the obligatory sari, served up in a rainbow assortment – is dizzying.

“I get very excited when I’m here,” says Webster, putting her hand over her heart. “Exquisite.”

And with that she reaches through the fray for a sheer mirrored sheath embroidered in blue and green, which she calls a “beach dress.”

“These make great gifts because they’re so exceptional, but they’re actually usable. In ten years, you won’t be able to find these dresses unless a designer decides to copy them.” At $80 a pop, Webster can’t resist them.

She pauses to take a mental inventory of the people on her list. A celebrity with extravagant taste needs something for her daughter, her new boyfriend, and her manager. A wealthy singer based on the West Coast insists on items that convey a spiritual message. And there are so many others. “It’ll work for someone,” she says.

She selects a cluster of bangles ($3 to $6 apiece) and some saris ($40 and up) that she will suggest as throws, and has the proprietor tally up the rest.

“Not bad,” she says, glancing at the receipt. “These would cost three times as much anywhere else.”

Bargain hunting for celebrity gifts?

“Of course,” says Webster dryly. “Just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they don’t like deals. If I can find them something unique that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, they love that.”

With that in mind, Webster heads across the street toward the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (90 Orchard Street, at Broome; 212-431-0233). She picks up some colorful straw baskets ($15 to $20) and starts loading them with old-fashioned toys. Next, she moves on to the jewelry case. She selects everything from little Buddha earrings ($30) to $9 glass rings to an ceramic mezzuzah ($22). There are Hebrew alphabet blocks, family albums on Chinese immigrants, Mexican-American heirlooms, ethnic-music CDs, even a leather coin purse shaped like a paper cup (the proceeds from the sale of the purse benefit the homeless).

“These are the kinds of gifts that people tend to treasure,” she says, bringing her pile to the cashier. “They are intensely personal, even spiritual. And for kids, these are meaningful presents.”

Back in the limo, Webster calls up a friend who tells her of a new boutique called Smaak in NoLIta. Suddenly we’re there.

Smaak seems to be our stop for novelty chic: It’s a tiny, 500-square-foot shop (219 Mulberry Street; 212-219-0504). “Everything is Scandinavian or Dutch,” says the owner, Susannah Gaterud-Mack, a modern-day Valkyrie with long blonde hair and a commanding voice. “These are all young, up-and-coming designers who have never sold anything here before.”

Smaak, which means taste in Swedish, is the kind of place where you might envision Björk hiding in the dressing room. The styles range from folkloric with a twist to avant garde and arty. “Perfect for my Scream and Blair Witch clients,” says Webster, gazing at a teal-and-violet quilted skirt and top delicately stuffed with plumes.

Next, she holds up a tank top with gems placed under a sheer layer. She picks out a cashmere-and-mohair scarf with a hand-dyed pattern taken from ancient Nordic runes. But when she spies a felt cap pierced with a giant safety pin, her jaw drops.

“Very Anaïs Nin,” she says, placing it on her head, as her platinum ringlets fall around her delicate face. “But with a punk edge.”

After selecting a dozen funky items, we are off again. Next stop is D. L. Cerney, a sixteen-year-old boutique (13 East 7th Street, 212-673-7033) that features its own line of men’s and women’s ready-to-wear cut from vintage and new fabrics.

“Instead of buying that sweaty old thing that everyone has already referenced, or that new Prada that costs a fortune, I would come here,” Webster says, adding, “I bought thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff here last year as a gift to myself. These make classic gifts.”

The Paul Smith boutique on 108 Fifth Avenue, at 16th Street (212-627-9770), beckons. “People think this is only about Paul Smith clothes, but it’s not,” says Webster. “I do all of my rock-and-roll shopping here.” And Webster has an impressive roster of stylishly clad pop stars. I am sworn to secrecy as she leads me enthusiastically to the glass case at the center of the store and has the salesman take out everything from typewriter-letter cuff links to Nikki B silver-beaded bracelets to a chunky silver speedometer watch that has a sixties flair.

“The eclectic accessories and home items in here are just amazing,” says Webster, strolling about with Eldridge curled up in her arms. “Everything in here is unique and witty – just what a celebrity would want.” There’s a Beatles Yellow Submarine tea set, a sparkly CD-holder that any touring rocker could use, a fifties-style men’s fedora with plaid trim or in a racy animal print, buttery soft woolen T-shirts that are lightly frayed, with a subtle paisley print, Lucite trays and coasters adorned with leaves, feathers, or flowers, a hot water bottle covered in striped cashmere, even bright woolen bags to throw everything in.

It’s barely 9 A.M., but Laura Mannix, the rosy-cheeked studio-services coordinator at Barneys New York – the store’s quintessential gift shopper – is already prowling the cosmetics counters on the first floor.

“I have to fit this in before the crunch starts,” she says, referring to her main job selecting clothes for television and film productions. “This is something I do on the side.”

Her side clientele is impressive nonetheless. Last year, she kept the store open late to assist Mariah Carey with her Christmas list. Today, she’s getting a jump-start on Danielle Steele, who, she says, “usually starts her holiday shopping early” for her eight children and many friends.

The gifts also must bear that Steele touch – extravagant, somewhat theatrical, and even romantic. “This is very decadent,” she says, reaching for a bottle of Sake Bath. “It has a pretty high alcohol content, so when you soak in it, it’s really intoxicating.”

Next, she leads me to the Miracle Worker, a $42.50 box of cosmetics from Philosophy. “I got this for Heather Locklear last year to give to one of her kid’s teachers,” she says. “It looks very impressive but it’s reasonably priced.”

But for one of Steele’s best friends, Mannix has a more extraordinary idea. “For people going away to a resort, I like to take a bag and stuff it with all sorts of great beach items,” she says, reaching for an oversize Pucci bag ($1,895). “I’ll put everything from Kiehl’s sunscreen to sparkly makeup to embellished flip-flops and fun stuff to wear on the islands in here.”

As we stroll past the accessories, Mannix reaches for something Burberry – this year’s pashmina. “I call this the happy scarf,” she says, opening up a glass case. “It’s double-fringed, wool and cashmere, $155, and it comes in novelty colors like rosy pink and mint green. It’s a great gift for a housekeeper.”

Lucky housekeeper, I think.

As we head up the escalator toward women’s ready-to-wear, Mannix tells me that Mariah is a big gift-giver, too. “And she has a very clear idea of what she wants,” she adds. On the third floor, Mannix zeroes in on a red mohair Ralph Lauren sweater priced at $895. “It’s a classic Christmas gift,” she says. “It’s perfect for one of Mariah’s friends.”

Across the floor, she spies a festive, red, Renaissance-looking jacket with tapestry print and big puffy sleeves by Yohji Yamamoto. “This is very Danielle Steele,” she says, taking it from the rack. “This is the perfect gift for someone with drama and a real appreciation of clothing. And it’s the perfect thing to wear to a holiday party.”

But clothes, she tells me, can be tricky. “Size is a touchy issue,” she says. The new Earl Jean corduroy jacket or skirt may be fine for a teenage daughter, but don’t buy that for a peer.

“You can’t be too trendy,” she advises. “You want to get something exceptional or classic, either that no one else has or that nobody can get enough of.”

With hangers in hand, we head up the escalator toward the Co-Op. “I get a lot of ideas here,” says Mannix, picking up a pink, red, white, and brown striped Kate Spade travel bag. “Here’s another great bag to stuff with goodies.” Last year, she tells me, Anna Wintour called and requested special soaps, individually wrapped and packaged in Barneys’ hat boxes.

“She needed a hundred of them,” she says. “And in a hurry.”

There are no soaps up here, though, just brightly colored scarves and funky knit caps, some with cat ears, that Mannix says would make great stocking stuffers. There are also chic leather shoulder bags in shades like eggplant that she says are practical gifts for someone’s personal assistant.

But enough of practical, I want that secret decadent stuff only celebrities and socialites get. We leave the Co-Op and take the elevator down to lingerie.

“You have to feel this,” says an animated Mannix, reaching for a cashmere robe that practically melts in my hands. “It’s the ultimate luxury and you only give this to someone really special.”

Considering its cost – $2,130 – I would hope so. Mannix also points out a lacy bustier that resembles couture ($395) with a matching thong ($185).

“It’s very classy,” she says. “It has to be of this caliber, otherwise I don’t recommend buying lingerie.”

And with that, we head back to her office on the eighth floor, right as a stylist from The Street arrives, shopping bags in hand, with clothes and shoes to return. No time left to dream about the holidays.

As she tallies up the gifts on her tidy desk, I spy a picture of an adorable chocolate Lab.

“That’s Bear,” she says, smiling. “He arrived with a ribbon wrapped around his neck from a stylist friend a few Christmases ago. He’s the best gift I ever got.”

Christmas Confidential