By Suzanne Pollak
The three wise men understand the art of giving. Their careers require them to give all day long, making people happy. They are craftsmen whose mediums are objects, meals, and personal transformation, respectively. Who better to talk about the deeper meaning of gifts than these three? I trust their opinions. Listening to others who strive to please for a living can help reframe how we view the art of giving. These men are not offering their top ten list of things to buy this season—forget about that! The wise guys delve into underlying principles and problems to determine gifts that will transform the way people feel.
Who are these angels of Christmas? First, we have James de Givenchy, jewelry designer and owner of the jewelry company Taffin. Who buys his pieces? Queens, fashion designers, actors—basically anyone who can! This man has the greatest eye in the world. Next, Jason Stanhope is a James Beard Award winner and executive chef at FIG in Charleston, South Carolina. Food lovers from all over the country dial thirty days in advance for a prayer at reserving a table there. His food isn’t fancy, but it’s food you or I could never make at home (I know—I tried and failed). Finally, Michael Vaughn Acord is a hairstylist, creator of V76, owner of Mizu, and the most sought-after guy in men’s grooming. Who goes to Michael? Bruce Springsteen, Richard Gere, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Brady, Ashton Kutcher, Al Pacino—plus regular guys who do anything but fade into the background and women who want a beautiful head of hair and the good vibes that Michael emanates.
Their Favorite Gifts to Give
“When people are going through bad times—get fired, need a different look, supported me for twenty years but now cannot afford me—I say, ‘Get your ass in here and let me fix you up,’” says Michael. “I am not going to stop cutting your hair and say no because you lost your job and are going through some hardship. When people get off your chair and give you hugs because you just made them feel a lot better about where they are right now in life, that is something you can’t put a price tag on. When you are younger, you want a bike or a Vespa or a new car, or a killer Hermès scarf or whatever; but as you get older, gifts of time take on a whole new meaning. When I think about these moments when someone is giving something, that resonates with me. That’s far and above stuff.”
So Michael says his favorite gift to give is time. But sometimes unseen gifts happen because a person thinks differently from others. Who would have thought to combine rubber, steel, ceramic, or plastic with a fine gem? Rubber with sapphires? Ceramic with diamonds? Steel and a tiny blue diamond? Why not? James’s bold and brilliant mind imagines spectacular objects out of oddball combos. His creations make one look at jewelry in a playful new way. Many pieces have a surprise tiny treasure inside that only the wearer knows about—a hidden gift to you alone.
Jason makes food feel like a gift to the taste buds, accessing part of the brain that makes one think, “I am alive at this moment.” Who else takes the concept of a crab cake and instead creates a pork confit cake? Who imagines that a lowly eggplant, blackened and free of moisture, will be the perfect mate to homemade cottage cheese? Jason holds the childlike ability we all once had, and perhaps still want, to experiment like a kid and give life to the wild imagination that lurks inside.
Favorite Gifts Ever Received
When asked about their favorite gifts, most parents’ go-to response is their child(ren). The wise men are no different but answered in their own original ways:
Michael: Some people say my favorite gift is my kids, but that wasn’t a gift; it was a planned thing. The gift is to have a healthy family.
Jason: I would like to think that my son, Leo, is the greatest gift, but there are times when I wonder if that’s a really good gift or a humbling experience.
James: So far, my favorite gift is my daughter, Stella’s, drawing for Father’s Day.
Jason: I feel like any gift that isn’t tied to an event is a good one. If I see something during the year that reminds me of somebody, I get it and hopefully can hang onto it until a holiday, but sometimes you just want to give it to that person. I think some of those small random gifts for no reason are the best. There’s no ulterior motive. I don’t want anything in return.
Michael: As we get older, it seems like a holiday gift is a requirement every year. When it comes to Christmas gifts, I like to think throughout the year. It’s very uncomfortable for me to feel like I have to buy eleven things on December 1. It’s a busy time of year for me!
The Joy of Giving
Jason: Everyone has given somebody a gift, watched them open it, and waited for the excitement that they have. It’s selfish and selfless at the same time. You want someone to be happy, but part of the joy is feeling good yourself. I love to give gifts. Going back to the ulterior motive thing, I think gifts are gifts if there is nothing expected in return. A smile, a thank-you, and a little sign of excitement go a long way, but you don’t have to reciprocate a gift of the same value.
What does it mean to forget a birthday, and what does that say about the relationship?
James: If you are close to the person, you are either dead, brain dead, or you just don’t care anymore.
Michael: Sh** happens. Life gets in the way sometimes. As we accumulate friends and go through life, sometimes things get missed. It’s unfortunate, but it usually doesn’t mean you don’t care. It just got away. As we get older, the years start clicking by really fast. You’ve got to be kidding—it’s their birthday again?
Jason: It definitely means something, because it’s not about you, it’s about the other person. But there has to be some level of sympathy because we are all busy adults. Helpful hints are attractive as far as not setting someone up for defeat. For example, our anniversary is foggy. It’s a certain time of year, but we don’t remember our first date or our first kiss. The relationship was a secret for six months, so we really don’t know our anniversary. We just pick a random day every year to have fun. I am lucky in that aspect. I do think if you miss a birthday or miss an anniversary, especially for your loved one, you should make up for it.
“Just for Fun” Gifts
Jason: Christmas gifts should be something you don’t need and might not want, as material as the holiday has become—so shallow and awesome! I think some of those small random gifts for no reason are the best. In our society, grown men don’t just go around buying each other gifts for no good reason. At one point in time, a friend told me his favorite thing in the world is soy sauce. The next week, I was ordering from my guy on the west coast, so I was like, I’m going to get Dave a bottle. I was nervous and giddy. Every time he sees me, he’s like, “Man, I ate soy sauce with my eggs this morning, and it was awesome.” It’s something he uses. How many gifts go into the trash or to Goodwill or go to someone else, regifted?
Armed and Dangerous: Knives, Blow Dryers, and Diamonds
What does it mean to give someone a knife? Some superstitions think it’s a bad omen for a relationship.
James: Knives mean the world if the receiver is a sushi chef.
Michael: I got a knife from a chef friend of mine who goes to Japan a lot. He comes over for dinner and always wants to help: “Give me the knife, I want to julienne the vegetables,” and then, “What the f*** is this? I am going to cut my hand. Are you kidding me?” So he shows up with a state-of-the-art Japanese sushi knife. As a hairdresser, you start to realize that when you have very sharp, quality instruments and gear, your job is more efficient. You are not struggling, and you don’t tend to cut yourself.
Jason: My boss gave me a knife at one point in my career, and he was so excited. He called me over to his house on a Sunday, and I’m like, “OMG, I’m going to get fired.” He reached into this drawer in the back of his kitchen and unwrapped butcher paper in a box. Inside was this French knife, and it actually says NY Bridge Company on it. All these knives were brought over after World War II through the company . . . I think that knife was a validation, a baton, a passing of the torch. It meant something! If someone gives you a knife in this industry, it’s a pretty big deal. A knife is like an extension of your body, and you are probably with it more than your loved ones. It’s a deep transaction with so many other meanings than a piece of metal.
Michael: Clients and friends tell me, “I don’t know what to get my wife.” I say, “Okay, let me teach you how to blow her hair dry.” Commit for a couple of times, and I’ll give you some techniques, and we’ll buy the perfect dryer and brush. I will teach you how to make her hair look great. It’s an aphrodisiac to have your husband dry your hair out of the shower. Just make sure she is topless when you are working on her hair. It has to be that way. There is no cape or gown, no robe. She is topless, and you do her hair. She is not going to find that anywhere—a guy who cares that much wants to learn how to use a hair dryer and a brush.
What does a ring signify?
Michael: It means forever. There is a permanence to a ring in my mind. A ring means more than a bracelet, necklace, or earrings. Rings stand out more to me. Maybe I am a traditionalist.
— V —
Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal “Mansion” section and Town & Country magazine.