Fashion

“Stella Tennant was a supermodel who showed women the beauty of being different”

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Christobel Hastings
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British fashion icon Stella Tennant took her own life after struggling with her mental health, according to a statement released by her family. Christobel Hastings looks back at the unique legacy she modelled, both on and off the catwalk.

I begin this piece with a caveat: I’m not a massive lover of fashion. My wardrobe is a rotating cast of grey, black and navy blue, and I don’t keep up with new season trends. I usually flick past all the fashion shoots in magazines in order to get straight to the features (blasphemous, I know) and, pandemic aside, I can’t remember the last time I visited a high street shop.

Yet when I heard the news that the legendary British supermodel Stella Tennant had died just days after her fiftieth birthday, my stomach dropped. The name on my notifications feed was at once warmly familiar and oddly distant, and it took me a few hours to remember who Tennant was, and process exactly why I felt so affected by her passing.

Stella Tennant walking the runway show for Chanel's ready-to-wear collection in 1994.

That was until I saw the photos filling my social media feeds, and I suddenly remembered. Memories of scrapbooking during the 90s at my Mum’s kitchen table, carefully tearing pictures and daubing them with flour and water paste. There were stacks of magazines around the house, and in amongst the cookery and interiors monthlies, there was always a slightly battered, glossy fashion magazine that would be swiftly ripped to shreds. And there was always one recurring face. Porcelain skin, slate blue eyes. A tousled pixie haircut.

Tragically, it has since been confirmed that the supermodel took her own life after struggling with her mental health. In a statement to The Telegraph released on 7 January, her family paid tribute to “a beautiful soul” for the first time since her death was announced on 22 December.

“We have been humbled by the outpouring of messages of sympathy and support since Stella died,” they said. “She was a beautiful soul, adored by a close family and good friends, a sensitive and talented woman whose creativity, intelligence and humour touched so many.

Stella Tennant walking the runway for J.P. Gaultier Haute Couture in 1997.

“Stella had been unwell for some time. So it is a matter of our deepest sorrow and despair that she felt unable to go on, despite the love of those closest to her. In grieving Stella’s loss, her family renews a heartfelt request that respect for their privacy should continue.”

Known for her androgynous looks and aristocratic heritage (she was the granddaughter of the 11th Duke of Devonshire, Andrew Cavendish, and his wife Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the high-society sisters), Stella Tennant catapulted to fame almost by accident in 1993, when she appeared in the pages of Vogue. Photographed by Stephen Meisel, the “Anglo-Saxon Attitude” shoot depicted the 22-year-old with kohl-rimmed eyes and a pierced septum, outfitted in fishnets and a mini kilt. Within a week, she was shooting a campaign for Versace, and went on to work with designers and fashion houses including Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier and Chanel.

Stella Tennant walking the runway for Givenchy Haute-Couture in 1997.

Glance at any of the photos of Tennant from her heyday, and you can immediately see why she stood out. Neither stereotypically sexy nor entirely waifish, her statuesque frame and handsome looks commanded attention. As did her sense of style: eccentric, original, completely Cool Brittania. Never could it be said that it looked as though any clothes were wearing her; if anything, she looked as though she was doing the catwalk a favour by being on it. She always seemed to be there entirely of her own volition, looking as though there were other things on her mind, or other places she had to be.

Modelling was only one of Tennant’s interests, after all. She was a lifelong sculptor and a passionate environmental activist, appearing in campaigns for the non-profit Global Cool, as well as supporting Oxfam’s Second Hand September. And though she retired from the industry in 1998 to raise a family, she returned occasionally for projects that piqued her interest, like walking the 2012 London Olympic Games closing ceremony, or lending a fresh perspective to historic British brand Holland & Holland. Her career certainly had remarkable longevity; only this January, Tennant walked for Valentino Haute Couture in her final catwalk appearance. 

Stella Tennant walking the runway for Alexander McQueen during Paris Fashion Week in 2019.

When I look at the photos of Tennant in her sharp suits, her slicked-back hair and her powerful stride, I now realise how utterly ahead of her time she was. These days, we easily identify and happily celebrate those who have the will to subvert gender norms, for a whole variety of reasons. But back then, in the days of supermodels with a capital S, Tennant superseded the confines of the catwalk simply by being authentic. In the quiet way she asserted her vision of beauty, she also paved a way for those outside the conventional boundaries of gender and sexuality. She could also have easily been read as queer; perhaps another reason why I now feel fondly about the woman who redefined femininity on her own terms.

It seems ironic, given Tennant’s stratospheric career, that she preferred life on the periphery. In many interviews, she talked of rambling the wild Scottish moors in woolly jumpers and wellies, embracing ageing, savouring a slower pace of life. Last year, in an interview with The Guardian, she discussed how she was still reusing clothes from her 90s wardrobe, only purchasing around five new items a year. While the nose-ringed, 22-year-old woman had grown up, it seemed the essence of her identity was very much the same – still different, still distinctive, still adapting to the future. It’s a path I’d very much like to follow. 

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing any of the issues discussed in this feature, there are a number of charities you can contact for help and support.

Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Mind also provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. You can find more information on their website.

Images: Getty