Stella Tennant, the unsurpassed aristocratic model and inspiration for designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace, died suddenly on Tuesday five days after her 50th birthday.
Her death was announced in a statement from her family. The cause of death was not disclosed. Police reports did not note any suspicious circumstances surrounding her death, according to the BBC.
Granddaughter of Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire and Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the Mitford sisters, Mrs Tennant was a direct descendant of Bess of Hardwick, builder of the lavish Elizabethan manor, Hardwick Hall, and once known to be the richest woman in England.
Mrs. Tennant carried her rare legacy easily through her three-decade fashion run, where she walked the runways of most great fashion designers; was shown in advertising campaigns for almost all major brands; appeared on dozens of magazine covers; and worked with a full list of the world’s elite photographers, editors, makeup artists and stylists.
Along with Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, Mrs Tennant was chosen to represent English fashion at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. In the late 1990s, Karl Lagerfeld signed her to an exclusive contract as Chanel’s face. Thus, Mr. Lagerfeld noted the very English Mrs. Tennant’s resemblance to the incomparably Gallic founder of the legendary house.
It was an imaginative claim by any standard, as Coco Chanel was short and better known for her style than her appearance, while Mrs. Tennant stood nearly six feet tall, had clear regular features, and maintained in adulthood the “bright blue eyes,” her grandmother Deborah Devonshire first noted in a letter to Anglo-Irish author Patrick Leigh Fermor when Mrs Tennant was in diapers.
What the two women had in common, however, was an element of androgyny. Mrs. Tennant’s brushed haircut along with her boyish cool (and a punk septum piercing) caught the attention of photographer Steven Meisel in the early 1990s. After appearing in a cast that the photographer sent out to strangers, Mrs. Tennant found her face displayed on the cover of Italian Vogue.
She soon found service with designers across the spectrum, from the New York Indies to the famous couturiers in Europe.
“Steven Meisel sent Stella to a go-see for my design studio, and I immediately threw her in my spring 94 show as an aristocratic punk princess,” said designer Anna Sui. “She was so elegant and had that beauty and androgyny of an Elizabeth Peyton drawing. Plus, there was the neat accent and despite the nose ring. ”
Mrs Tennant’s light hand with duality – especially of class and gender – kept her in demand for decades with designers such as Valentino Garavani, Alber Elbaz, Giorgio Armani, Marc Jacobs and Gianni Versace (whose family in a statement on Tuesday called her the late designer “muse” ). If they admired her beauty, the banks also designed her ability to embody multiple fashion archetypes.
“She was just as beautiful in a tuxedo or a chiffon dress,” said Alber Elbaz, who cast Ms. Tennant in the lead role in her first advertising campaign for Yves Saint Laurent when he took on design responsibilities there in 1998 (and shortly after Ms. Tennant gave birth to her first child).
“She was not really a model,” he added. “She was a woman, a mother, English, aristocratic, but with a golden heart.”
Stella Tennant was born in London on December 17, 1970, the youngest of three children of Lady Emma Cavendish and Hon. Tobias William Tennant, son of the second Baron Glenconner, himself the younger half-brother of Colin Tennant, the rakehell favorite of Princess Margaret and the force behind the development of the Caribbean island of Mustique.
Raised on her family’s 1,500-hectare farm in the Scottish borders, she attended St. Leonards School and St. Andrews and later Marlborough College in the English countryside. She was still a student at the Winchester School of Art when she caught the eye of fashion writer Plum Sykes on British Vogue. When she was cast for a Steven Meisel recording for a Vogue UK issue in December 1993 titled “Anglo-Saxon Attitude”, she was already 23. Intended in modeling business dog years that are almost retirement age.
Yet her detachment and relative maturity served her well in a business notorious for volatility and helium-stricken extravagances of temperament.
“As soon as someone mentioned her name, the reaction was always ‘I want her to be on my show,'” Elbaz said. When asked why, he replied, “The moment you are most wild and panicking, it was she who calms you down.”
And while she was no stranger to grandeur in attire (after all, not all children are free to play attire in wardrobes in Chatsworth, the Derbyshire seat of the Dukes of Devonshire), she had an elegance of spirit and attitude it was innate, according to Pierpaolo Piccioli, the Valentino designer.
Just before the world went into blockade last winter, Mr. Piccioli Mrs. Tennant to the coveted opening of his couture show. It would turn out to be her last.
“When she came after her seizure, she was so kind to everyone – not just me, but all the seamstresses, everyone,” Mr Piccioli wrote in an email. “What she showed was that elegance is not just about physical qualities or a ride, but about something inside. She had a grace that it was impossible to copy or explain. ”
She is survived by her husband, David Lasnet, a photographer and osteopath, whom she divorced in August after 21 years of marriage, and four children, Iris, Jasmine, Cecily and Marcel.
Vanessa Friedman contributed with additional reporting.