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When TV presenter James Corden decided to send English afternoon tea hampers to 150 of his friends and crew in Los Angeles during lockdown, he called on his British friend Bex Norris to make it happen.
She’d had to close the catering company she ran with another Brit, Jen Cooper, and they were happy to try their hand at gifting. “We knew the kind of thing we liked to receive and what we didn’t like: plastic packaging and mindless gimmicks,” Bex says. “And we knew how competitive gifting is in LA: people have gift registries for every occasion.”
The hampers, filled with homemade scones, cream, jam, fresh flowers and the ingredients to make Corden’s wife’s favourite cocktail, went down a storm in Tinseltown: within days the head of talent at Apple Music was on the phone asking for similar curated gifts to be sent to some of their artists.
“We couldn’t believe it when we saw the list: Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Billie Eilish,” Bex says. “We didn’t even have a name for our company.”
Since then, Carnaby & Vine, so-called after streets in London and LA to reflect their British-American provenance, has sourced bespoke gifts for Netflix and CBS and delivered gifts to Katy Perry, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Styles, Helen Mirren and Prince Harry.
Now they’re bringing their expertise to the UK with a new office in London. “Our clients have all the money in the world to buy themselves whatever they want so we have to work really hard to impress them,” Bex explains.
“We’re constantly searching for the latest buzz product, which blends luxury with thoughtfulness and intention. Every element must be the highest quality, including the box and card.”
Whatever your budget, successful gifting is more about the time and thought you put into it than the money, Bex says. She’s currently deep into Christmas shopping for clients that will happily spend more than £200 on a gift – but it’s the thought and effort that counts.
“We’re all so busy that we get sucked into panic-buying and overspending on random gifts online but the best presents have intention and creativity,” she says. “You want the person to feel like you’ve listened, thought and cared. That feeling that your loved one has just thrown money at the problem isn’t actually very nice.”
She encourages her clients to note down ideas throughout the year – people drop hints without even knowing it, she says. “The more time you invest in your Christmas shopping, the less you spend and you can choose to support smaller, less wasteful businesses that avoid excessive packaging and bubble wrap.”
In fact, so long as a gift shows intention and thought, you can get away with spending almost nothing, she continues. For her daughter’s birthday earlier this month, she found a winter coat on second-hand marketplace Vinted, which was even nicer than the one they’d seen in Zara. “It was £12 and absolutely gorgeous. I wrapped it up and she was thrilled.”
It’s a good idea to get good at wrapping, she advises, as a gift seems even more generous if you’ve gone to trouble with the presentation. She prefers traditional gift wrap and ribbons to American-style gift bags and avoids glittery and shiny paper that can’t be recycled. “At Christmas my favourite is simple brown paper with a red velvet ribbon and tag,” she says. “I also like adding personal touches with stamps.”
For her own family this Christmas, she’ll be opting for presents that can be enjoyed immediately and aren’t going to create clutter. With children it’s difficult – they tend to get wowed by shiny toys in big boxes you have to store somewhere – yet for adults there are plenty of options that won’t hang around in cupboards: personalised diaries and notebooks, for example, bottles of fizz and house plants.
If you’re drawing a total blank, you can’t go wrong with candles or cashmere socks, she adds: they’re luxurious whilst also being practical.
Even these foolproof options require an element of decision-making, though. If you’re agonising over colour, size or scent, just choose the one you love best, Bex says – the recipient will appreciate your personal input.
“As we say in our office, love what you give. It’s the best feeling when you watch someone opening a gift that you love and it turns out they love it too,” she says.
Bex and Jen’s guide to solving tricky Christmas dilemmas
Q. When my boyfriend is given a gift and doesn’t like it, he asks for the receipt immediately to change it. I’m the opposite; I’ll thank them regardless and never complain. Who’s right?
A. This is a tricky one and I think you have to tread carefully. In some families, there’s a culture of asking for the receipt, while in others you’d cause offence. You need to bear in mind that gifting is (nearly) always from a good place and takes time and effort, so kindness and gratitude in the way you respond should be the priority.
That said, if you’re sure the giver won’t be offended, I see no problem in asking to swap it for something that you will actually use. It’s such a minefield, though, and the best way to manage it is always to include a gift receipt. This way they can return the present after Christmas without people being hurt, confrontation or awkwardness.
Q. My family insists on sending lists at Christmas. It’s dull and clinical. How can I stop it?
A. I’m actually quite a fan of the family gift lists. When you’ve been buying presents for the same people year after year it can be hard to get it spot on, so a bit of guidance is a godsend.
I always like to take what’s on the list and put a thoughtful spin on it, though, so it’s not just a clinical click on the Amazon link but finding them something even better than they hoped for. Lists might be a pain to write (and receive) but they guard against mindless buying, which is a total waste of our money, time and the planet.
Q. What can I gift my father and mother? 70-something farmers – who buy everything they want themselves. They don’t want stuff, don’t like surprise trips and don’t really like doing things together...help!
A. Oh now this is hard and we all have people like this in our lives! My father isn’t a farmer but he buys himself everything he needs and his Christmas list will only have two things on it: chutney and a puzzle.
I would say practical with a hint of luxury is always good in these situations – splurge on an elevated version of an everyday item, such as a special pair of socks to wear on the farm. Alternatively, thoughtful keepsakes are always well received by this type of recipient – things they simply cannot buy for themselves
Take the time to put together a lovely coffee table photo book with pictures from a recent birthday or special occasion. Photo calendars also go down well (my Mum has one every Christmas with all her grandchildren grinning out at her month after month from happy times together and she loves it!).
Q. What’s wrong with a recycled joke present? My family loves them but my in-laws are baffled.
A. I’m all for recycling presents or gifting second-hand items – there is way too much waste in the world and one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure as the saying goes. But the joke part has me worried. If it’s just junk then let’s be honest, no one wants to find that under the tree.
My husband once gave me a pair of plastic, white, fringed cowboy boots that he found in the wardrobe whilst working on The X Factor and I definitely didn’t find it that funny – I thought he’d gone mad.
Second-hand gifts are great, though (see Etsy, Vinted and Gumtree) as is regifting, so long as you genuinely believe the recipient will love, use and cherish whatever it is and, of course, you’re not giving it back to the same person who gave it to you.
Q. Is it OK to give a bottle of booze?
A. So long as it’s not snatched from the back of your cupboard, cheap and nasty and covered in cobwebs, a bottle is a great idea, although it doesn’t have to be booze: there are delicious non-alcoholic options available such as Seedlip and Katy Perry’s non-alcoholic De Soi.
Obviously, find out whether the recipient drinks alcohol before thrusting wine in their face. At Christmas, I try to make a bottle more interesting than just a bottle: champagne with a shot of cranberry liquor to turn it into a festive cocktail, for example, or a bottle of red wine with a little pouch of mulling spices.
As ever, it’s all about the thought behind a gift and also how they’re wrapped up and presented. You can turn a simple bottle into something special with lovely wrapping paper, ribbon and a thoughtfully written card.
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