November 22 2009
Interior designer Melissa Hilton-Brown is renowned for her exquisite good taste. The wealthy and famous seek her out to make over their apartments in Manhattan, their ski chalets in the Swiss Alps, their double-fronted villas in Holland Park and their country piles in Gloucestershire. Just to secure her services – a style best described as “modern boudoir” – is something of a coup for her clients, who include a world-famous pop star and a cell of Manhattan socialites.
One of the many perks of Melissa’s job is the river of gifts that she receives both from clients (invariably before they’ve seen her final bill) and suppliers – the bespoke furniture and rug makers, the lighting and furniture designers and the wallpaper artists whom she commissions for her various projects. Grateful for the lavish orders that she sends their way, they lubricate business deals with gifts that range from one-offs of their own designs to expensive bath oils, designer handbags and Hermès scarves.
Melissa’s own Chelsea home boasts a walk-in closet devoted to gifts. Lined up on the walnut shelves are scented candles, bath unguents, luxury fountain pens and designer notecards too numerous to mention. They are all perfectly lovely gifts in their own right – but Melissa could not hope to get through them in a lifetime of note-writing or candle-lighting. And so she habitually “regifts” many of the offerings she receives, instructing her assistant to rewrap them in her signature style of matte white paper embellished with a flourish of black and violet ribbons before passing them on to her equally glamorous friends.
She assuages any feelings of guilt by telling herself that “recycling” gifts that she doesn’t need or like is “the green thing to do”. (That said, there are certain gifts that she never recycles but always keeps for herself, on the basis that you can never have enough Baccarat Mille Nuits champagne flutes, Cire Trudon pillar candles, Hermès notebooks, Anya Hindmarch receipt wallets or silver Tiffany T-clip rollerball pens.)
But it takes a good memory and some careful planning, she has realised, not to give someone back a present they gave to you. She herself has been the victim of thoughtless regifting, having once presented her mother-in-law with a Murano glass vase for her birthday (which in truth was given to Melissa by a grateful glass designer whom she’d commissioned to make a set of chandeliers), only to be handed it back for Christmas. Melissa, not realising immediately, commented that it looked familiar. As the awful truth dawned for both of them, the MIL did not skip a beat. “Well, darling, I hope you like it as much now as you did when you chose it for me last year,” she replied with breathtaking audacity.
Shortly before Christmas, Melissa and her financier husband are invited to dinner at the home of their friends the Laxanbys. Melissa is about to rifle through The Cupboard for a suitable dinner-party gift but then she remembers the seven-drawer box of gourmet chocolates couriered over along with a Christmas card that morning by Melody Bonport, the owner of a small chain of lingerie boutiques, whose stores Melissa has agreed to redesign.
On arrival chez Laxanby, the Hilton-Browns are introduced to their fellow guests. “And you must meet my new project,” says Roger Laxanby, a venture capitalist, guiding them towards another guest. To Melissa’s horror, it is Melody Bonport, who looks equally horrified as she spots the familiar box of chocolates that the interior designer is clutching. The hostess, however, looks delighted as she takes the incriminating confectionery from Melissa’s hands.
“Oh, how lovely,” she says. “I’ve heard so much about this chocolatier. I can’t wait to try them.”
Melissa sits through the meal, unable to look the lingerie queen in the eye. But the worst is yet to come. After coffee, the hostess produces the box of expensive confectionery, announcing that it is the generous gift from the Hilton-Browns. Melissa squirms as Laura Laxanby opens the top drawer of the box of chocolates and produces a piece of glittery lace fabric from within.
Puzzled, the hostess holds it up so that the rest of the table can get a good view of a pair of knickers emblazoned with the memorable message “Hope you have a ravishing Christmas, love from Bonport Lingerie.”