An ode to Stella Tennant
She was the model whose haute-androgynous style made her one all on her own.
Stella Tennant photographed by Craig McDean, December 1995
In light of Stella Tennant’s untimely passing, i-D wanted to share this article from 2017, celebrating a true original and i-con.
Utterly unthinkable to the younger millennials: being a bona fide supermodel, and yet having no social media presence. (Utterly unthinkable to Generation Z, meanwhile, is actually becoming a model without being scouted on Instagram. I worry about the kids.) Having a face whose lines have been judged to look perfect in a photograph and never taking a selfie is either modern-day blasphemy, or it's a rare kind of power. I'm not thinking of Kate Moss, who is not only meme-savvy enough to have called an airline stewardess a "basic bitch," but is also photographed enough that whether or not she has signed up to Twitter is meaningless. I am thinking, as one does, of Stella Tennant, the aristocrat-cum-model-cum-distant-cousin-of-Lady-Diana whose haute-androgynous style and technophobia make her one all her own.
Working at a magazine whose content occasionally swerves into fashionable territory, the very first supermodel to ever appear on a cover during my employment was Stella. The shoot, which let her style herself and behave however she wanted — which happened to be exactly like herself — on the streets of New York, came back raw and unedited. You could see the gum on the pavement. You could see the grime on the soles of her Céline mules, "model's own." There are people who will tell you that the bluest thing on earth is the sea in the Maldives or the Philippines, but I am here to make a rebuttal. The bluest things on earth are Stella Tennant's eyes on a bright day in Brooklyn, photographed with a digital camera. Stella Tennant's eyes are so blue that Anish Kapoor is trying to get the color trademarked. They are blue enough that Maggie Nelson is thinking of writing a sequel. A voracious buyer of fashion magazines since my early teens, I had nonetheless not seen a model so unbothered about the way that she looked in an image before in my life: it helped, I suppose, that she looked fantastic whatever she did. Models have it, or they don't, although I could not say what the "it" they have is; I only know that seeing it in action makes you realize that the job is not simply to stand and look good in the clothes. There is something it not dissimilar to acting.
Obviously, Stella Tennant is quite literally a different class of human being from you — I'm assuming — or I, which I guess adds to her image as somebody Notably More Than. Her father has the title "The Honorable," whereas nobody in my family has much honor. Whether you're more impressed by Kate and Pete, or Tennant being descended from the Mitfords tells you neatly and succinctly exactly the brand of star-chaser you are: being broke and living near Croyden, my heart is Kate's, but my golden-age high society scrapbook absolutely belongs to Stella. First discovered as a twenty-two-year-old in 1993, a shoot in Vogue's December issue with Stephen Meisel launched both Stella, and the popular image of grunge as a high-fashion style. "[Stylist] Joe McKenna's now-famous 1993 Anglo Saxon Attitudes shoot," says fashion journalist Lauren Cochrane, "featured a young Stella Tennant with a…less [than] delicate nose ring…hanging between her nostrils. It looked edgy and, paired with rings of eyeliner, short hair, and jumper covering her hands, summed up an early 90s moment when scruffy posh girls ruled the runways."
"After the Vogue shoot, he [Stephen Meisel] asked me to go to Paris and shoot a Versace campaign," she told the Evening Standard last year, in an interview they justifiably describe as "rare." "Suddenly, it was a proper modeling job. And I didn't really know if I wanted to open the door and see what was inside. You have an idea of what fashion is about, but I'd been at art school. I didn't know if I wanted to be objectified. I thought it was a big, shallow world and I wasn't really sure if I liked the look of it." In the same profile, she's described as wearing "some oversized jeans ('I'm not sure if these are mine or my husband's'), a long-sleeved green t-shirt by 45rpm, Turnbull & Asser socks, Comme des Garçons sneakers and a Louis Vuitton handbag monogrammed with her initials. "'And a vest,' she chuckles. 'Always a vest.'"
Her husband is an osteopath instead of a rock star or model. The frankly grannyish motto "always a vest," meanwhile, may yet end up embroidered on the Union Jack for its stereotypical Britishness. Paradoxically, her sex appeal and her rock 'n' roll edge come from the fact that she does not care either about being sexy or acting like somebody rock 'n' roll: a long-term resident of the Scottish Highlands and a mother-of-four, she nevertheless continued dyeing her hair a coalish, coltish, shadeless black until a year or so ago, when her husband purportedly begged her to stop and to age with a little more grace. Another sense in which she's like Kate Moss is in the fact that she does not reveal herself much when interrogated, feeling that her physicality can speak for itself — "modeling is like being in the silent movies," she's insisted. "It's not about your personal life, so I've never particularly indulged in doing interviews." Asked why she returned to modeling after having children, she once shrugged: "I haven't found a better part-time job."
In that "rare" discussion with the Evening Standard, Stella Tennant paints a picture of herself as an old-money homebody whose good looks and cool personal style ended up picking out her career for her. This seems, based on what I have observed from her limited media presence, entirely accurate. "I feel better about my body than I did in my twenties," she offers pragmatically, "because I feel extremely grateful to my body for being able to take four babies through pregnancy, and breastfeed. That made me really appreciate it and not obsess about one small patch of cellulite on my upper thigh."
"Aging kind of sucks," she concludes, "but I'm not going to fight it…I'm not really pursuing my modeling in the same way. If it wants to pursue me, that's a different thing, but me as I am. I'm not going to dye my hair…I don't want to pretend to be something that I'm not. I've got to an age where I have to feel comfortable with myself. I'm incredibly glad to be where I am. I've got my children, my husband, work that I enjoy… I mean, what else is there really?" What else is there? It depends who is asking. I will always love Kate Moss for her wildness, and for the fact that she reminds me of an archetypal Camden Caner in the body of a goddess. Stella Tennant represents a different kind of pleasure in living. She represents the absolute don't-give-a-fuck joy of knowing yourself.
One imagines that the aristocracy, when they are making the best of their unions, breed their children like racehorses. Likewise, I remember reading an interview once with a high-profile booker, who said that a good girl, a girl like the best kind of racehorse, is someone who "quivers" at go-sees. She has a winner's mad energy. Stella Tennant is a kind of human thoroughbred — lanky, astoundingly angular, and completely disinterested in being broken-down, reformed, or altered. She is — God help me — "a free spirit." There was a video with those photographs we published in the magazine, and in it, Stella ran down the street with some of the clothes held aloft. She whipped them all around her like a dervish. She capered. She swooned. She jumped like a championship filly. You can never, I promise you, really capture the truth of a supermodel's "quiver" on Instagram — you just have to see it in motion.