The fashion world is fickle but Stella Tennant was a rare survivor, striding down catwalks and smouldering from magazine covers for almost 30 years.
By the flighty and superficial standards of her industry, she seemed a beacon of substance: avoiding the party circuit, eschewing celebrity culture and refusing to have anything much to do with such social media fripperies as Instagram.
Married for more than two decades, she and her French photographer-turned-osteopath husband, David Lasnet, raised their four children not in London, Paris or New York, but in an 18th-century manor house in rural Scotland where they would swim in rivers, grow vegetables and walk in the hills.
‘I need space. I need some of that freedom,’ she once explained. ‘I’d go nuts in a city.’
When a journalist inquired how the model — whose androgynous punk style belied her aristocratic roots — had ended up enjoying such a tweedy domestic life, David replied: ‘Well, I think we want to make it work, you know? There’s nothing better than growing old together. And it’s very easy to destroy something.’
The fashion world is fickle but Stella Tennant was a rare survivor, striding down catwalks and smouldering from magazine covers for almost 30 years. Pictured: Tennant and her husband David Lasnet at their 1999 wedding in the small parish church of Oxnam, Scottish Borders
In August, it emerged that Stella had quietly separated from her husband some 21 years after they had married in the local church. And yesterday, news of her death was confirmed, just five days after her 50th birthday.
‘It is with great sadness that we announce the sudden death of Stella Tennant,’ read a statement from her family.
‘Stella was a wonderful woman and an inspiration to us all.’
Police Scotland said officers had been called to an address near Duns, the village closest to her home, at 11.30am on Tuesday, adding: ‘There are no suspicious circumstances’.
Neighbours were shocked at the news saying that, since the separation, David had seemingly moved to Edinburgh, where the couple had a mews house, and continued working as an osteopath while Stella had taken up riding.
‘She was well liked, warm and friendly. The very opposite of a social butterfly, quite unstarry, and all the more popular in the community for it,’ one of them said yesterday.
In August, it emerged that Stella had quietly separated from her husband some 21 years after they had married in the local church. And yesterday, news of her death was confirmed, just five days after her 50th birthday. Pictured: Model Stella Tennant walks the ramp showcasing Rocco Barocco swimwear collection in Milan in 1998
‘I saw her recently out on her horse, and we had a good chat. She seemed well, but did say she was very worried about [the impact of] Covid [on fashion] because she thought it might mean she never worked again.
‘She said that by the time people were allowed to travel again and the catwalk shows re-started, she would be regarded as too old. But that was the only thing that gave the impression she wasn’t completely happy.’
Tributes poured in from all across the fashion world.
‘My darling Stella, I f*****g love you and will miss you so, so terribly,’ said designer Stella McCartney. ‘What sad, horrific news to end this already shocking year.’
The fashion house Versace described her as ‘Gianni Versace’s muse for many years’ and a ‘friend of the family’, saying: ‘We will miss you for ever, Stella. Rest in peace’.
Former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman said she was mourning ‘one of the loveliest people to work with and an exceptional beauty. And devoted mother’.
Neighbours were shocked at the news saying that, since the separation, David had seemingly moved to Edinburgh, where the couple had a mews house, and continued working as an osteopath while Stella had taken up riding. Pictured: Tennant in 1996
Stella Tennant is the third in her generation of British fashion mega-stars to have her life tragically cut short. Her friends the designer Alexander McQueen died in 2010 and fashion director Isabella Blow three years earlier — both took their own lives.
Her death also marks another sad footnote in the history of one of Britain’s great aristocratic families.
Stella’s father, the Hon Tobias William Tennant, was the son of the late 2nd Baron Glenconner. His late half-brother, Colin, bought the island of Mustique in 1958 turning it into a favourite destination of the celebrity jet set, most notably his close friend Princess Margaret, before leaving a huge chunk of his fortune to a local manservant.
Stella’s mother was Lady Emma Cavendish, daughter of Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, whose seat is the famous Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, while her maternal grandmother was Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the Mitford sisters, who died in 2014.
A great-uncle was Stephen Tennant, a bright young thing in the Twenties, who was a friend and subject of the photographer Cecil Beaton, the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon and part inspiration for the character Sebastian Flyte, the doomed young aristocrat in Brideshead Revisited.
Stella Tennant is the third in her generation of British fashion mega-stars to have her life tragically cut short. Her friends the designer Alexander McQueen died in 2010 and fashion director Isabella Blow three years earlier — both took their own lives. Pictured: Stella Tenant in a Union Jack dress with stockings at the market created for the Dolce & Gabbana Spring/Summer 2000
Perhaps understandably, given her blue-blooded pedigree, Stella never set out to pursue a catwalk career, and despite her enormous success never seemed hugely fond of it either.
‘I’d hate to be known as another toff who’s gone into modelling,’ she once said. ‘Modelling is something which might enable me to do what I really want.’
Born in London, she grew up on a 1,500-acre sheep farm in the Borders and after attending the prestigious St Leonards School for Girls in St Andrews, went to study sculpture at Winchester Art College, where she acquired a nose ring. For her 21st birthday, she was given a welding torch.
Her adventures in modelling began by accident in 1993 after her socialite chum Plum Sykes, who was working at Vogue, asked if she might appear in an editorial spread of ‘real’ people, called Anglo Saxon Attitudes.
Not only did her photograph end up making the cover, but the photographer Steven Meisel — who, having just shot Madonna’s book, Sex, was one of the most influential snappers of the time — was so impressed by the 22-year-old’s translucent skin and steely blue eyes that he invited her to Paris the following week to appear in a shoot for Versace.
In an era where top models tended to be Amazonian goddesses, her cropped black hair, lanky frame, facial piercings and sharp cheekbones marked her out as something different.
In an era where top models tended to be Amazonian goddesses, Tennant’s cropped black hair, lanky frame, facial piercings and sharp cheekbones marked her out as something different. Pictured: On the cover of Vogue
Rarely smiling and sometimes sneering in photographs, she heralded the arrival of a new aesthetic and the bookings rolled in.
‘I think I have the record for walking the most shows in one season — 75 or something ridiculous,’ she once said. ‘This was more than 20 years ago. Back then it wasn’t seen as desperate to walk in so many shows: it was how we made our money.
‘The girls today make nothing in comparison, but we were just riding on the coat-tails.’
Her greatest champion was the late Karl Lagerfeld, who signed her to replace Claudia Schiffer as the ‘face’ of Chanel, where he was creative director, on a reputed retainer of $1 million.
Somewhat put out, the German supermodel declared: ‘I’m no great fan of the fact that nowadays you have to look like a junkie just to be cool… I stick to photographers who want me to look beautiful and healthy. Stella is a neat-looking girl. It’s the way she’s presented that I resent.’
Lagerfeld hit back: ‘Claudia is part of another fashion, another time. Stella is more in tune with modern fashion trends.’
Yet while her contemporaries were dabbling in Class A drugs and falling out of nightclubs, Stella was regarded as a low-key catwalk star. She once claimed to prefer green wellies to Manolos.
Her only flirtation with celebrity notoriety came via a reported fling with the gold-toothed DJ and former graffiti artist Goldie, but shortly afterwards she met David, who was an assistant to the photographer Mario Testino.
It was love at first sight: they shared lunch that day. ‘David was sitting opposite me. I was so nervous that the rice kept falling off my fork. I had to give up eating,’ she recalled.
The couple married in the small parish church of Oxnam in 1999 in front of just 75 guests. They went on to have four children: Marcel, Cecily, Jasmine and Iris, who are now aged between 15 and 22.
After a brief stint in New York, they relocated to the Scottish Borders, from where Stella combined full-time parenting with very occasional modelling work.
As recently as 2018, she made headlines by hitting the catwalks for some of fashion’s biggest brands, including Burberry and Victoria Beckham. Her life, back then, seemed to be complete.
Indeed, in one of her final interviews, Stella professed herself delighted to be growing old gracefully, joking that (at David’s request) she had even stopped dyeing her greying hair.
‘I’m not really pursuing my modelling 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,’ she said.
‘I’m incredibly glad to be where I am. I’ve got my children, my husband, work I enjoy… I mean, what else is there really?’