No one in fashion could guess what would happen to the happy, smiling health of the international supermodels who commanded runways and covers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The next big unexpected things turned out to be very particularly British: abandoned girl Kate Moss and the genius aristocracy Stella Tennant, who made the pages of British Vogue in 1993. She died suddenly, shortly after her 50th birthday.
Tennant’s appeal had been foreshadowed in that year’s Sally Potter film premiere of Virginia Woolf’s fantasy novel Orlando, her hero / heroine (nothing as simple as androgynous) played by Tilda Swinton; Lean, tall, pale, unpainted pipe cleaner with both male and female body language and an always foolish smile. Totally Tennant.
At that time, Tennant herself graduated in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, who, realizing she didn’t have enough to say to become an artist, had tried unsuccessfully to monetize her close to 6-foot tall and remarkable bones in modeling. She had a unique look since childhood: she cut her tousled black hair like a hedgehog, flaunted punk clothes her older sister had sent her from London, and wore a nose ring. (Her father, a farmer, offered to lead her around her pen.)
A friend arranged for Tennant to send passport photographs to a British Vogue assistant, Plum Sykes, and then worked with stylist Isabella Blow on a shoot called Anglos-Saxon Attitudes, with the American grunge style modeled by some English-looking roses. ruined. Tennant was summoned to London after a holiday in the Highlands, traveled on a sleeper train, arrived late to the venue in Spitalfields, and was immediately discovered as the newest face by the then most popular photographer. Steven Meisel, even though that face is obscured by the black panda eye paint, as well as the nose ring.
Meisel and the Vogue team invited her to Paris next week to model for a Versace campaign (Tennant recalled “I thought, well, okay, that sounds like fun”), and a resulting photo of Meisel was the cover of Italian Vogue. Tennant looked forward to six months of profitable work: she was candid about being a model for the money, earned by her gangly demeanor, unappealing catwalk locomotion, free elbows, and a rested face she didn’t mean to ingratiate herself with. (In art school she imitated favorite photographer Cindy Sherman’s technique of impersonating stereotypes and pulled them out of her system.)
Tennant’s manners were so cool that he soon had an agent, a flat in New York, and the unofficial record of being in the most shows, 75, in one season. They were the moneymaker back then, though Tennant worked without demanding supermodel bonuses just to get out of bed. She liked the small, close-up 90’s outfits and learning on clothing craft tests.
Karl Lagerfeld offered her more money in 1996 to replace Claudia Schiffer as Chanel’s slimmer face and body. Schiffer looked like an Amazon Brigitte Bardot, her chest busted from her bare bra, and she complained that Tennant was cool now meant heroin chic, looking like a junkie. But Tennant at Chanel gave up on grunge other than her Sam McKnight spiked hairstyle.
Lagerfeld had cleverly seen in her a resemblance to the young Coco Chanel, who wore real men’s sportswear and larks, minimizing her femininity. He also liked Tennant’s emphatic roots in Scotland; Chanel on a visit there had fallen so much in love with her tweeds and wool that she made them a permanent fixture in her designs. Tennant in a Linton tweed coat and two-tone desert boots, running his fingers through his choppy hair, was classic Chanel.
Always Scottish first, she was born the youngest daughter of Tobias Tennant of the Glenconner family, who had made her fortune developing bleach for cotton fabrics, and Lady Emma Cavendish, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire (born Deborah Mitford). Her parents owned a farm at Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders, where, like her older brother Eddy and sister Elizabeth, she attended the local primary school before being sent to St Leonards School in St Andrews.
He discovered that he had style, and exactly what that style was, roaming the hills in inappropriate footwear and smoking unruly cigarettes in the back of his father’s barn. Growing up on a farm kept her grounded, she said. “Lambs and sheep, blood and guts and sex”.
Unusually for a fashion star, Tennant stayed true to his home turf. She announced her first modeling retirement before age 30, when she got married (dressed by her favorite designer Helmut Lang) in the local church with no celebrity guests. Her boyfriend was David Lasnet, assistant to photographer Mario Testino; they had met on a set. (Lasnet later retrained as an osteopath.) They lived briefly in Manhattan before returning to Scotland, where they had a house in Edinburgh and a house in Edrom, Berwickshire, with a vegetable garden and chickens.
Tennant did not intend to continue modeling after the birth of her children, Marcel, Cecily, Jasmine, and Iris, but it was surprisingly easy to take on limited-duration gigs, and she continued to be in demand for the rest of her life for advertisements, magazine jobs. , regular catwalks and an appearance at the 2012 Olympics ceremony as a distinctive British asset: “I haven’t found a better part-time job.”
In 2015, London gun makers Holland & Holland, now owned by the Chanel group, asked Tennant to help them design their field gear: their own off-duty uniform, from solid heather-proof shoes to shoes. Shepherd’s plaid coat was his ideal. (Although they never went as far as his thermal cape; he always wore a warm vest under those sweaters and shirts from Paris or Milan.) Tennant called the former Vogue stylist. Isabella Cawdor as a partner, and over the course of five years they created a range: their criteria was, whatever the garment was, “You have to be able to climb over a barbed wire fence.”
Tennant and Lasnet parted ways earlier this year. He and his children survive her.
• Stella Tennant, model and designer, born December 17, 1970; died on December 22, 2020
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.