Tennant, who has died aged 50, was always quite distinct from her peers, with her androgynous looks and a chameleon-like ability to change appearance and personality for every shoot. Such was her adaptability that she seemed equally at ease in a country outfit or in punky grunge-style garb.
She was born in 1970 into an aristocratic family. Her mother, Lady Emma Tennant, is the daughter of the 11th Duke of Devonshire and her father, the Hon Tobias Tennant, is the son of the 2nd Baron Glenconner. She was also the maternal granddaughter of the Hon Deborah Mitford, one of the celebrated Mitford sisters.
Tennant grew up on a farm in the Scottish Borders and studied sculpture, her “first love”, at Winchester School of Art. Whilst many models had already launched their careers as teenagers, she had to wait until the age of 22 before being discovered by the photographer Steven Meisel for Vogue magazine in December 1993.
That debut image portrayed Tennant in a boyish punk-pixie look, with cropped hair and pierced nose, a stunning naturalistic shot that belied her future supermodel status. “After the Vogue shoot, he asked me to go to Paris and shoot a Versace campaign,” she recalled in a rare interview for ES Magazine in 2016, “Suddenly, it was a proper modelling job. And I didn’t really know if I wanted to open the door and see what was inside … 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.”
However, the path was already set. And having found fame in the early Nineties in the acclaimed Meisel shoot, she would go on to enjoy a career of nearly three decades, working with some of the greatest fashion houses, including Chanel, Alexander McQueen and Burberry. In the late Nineties, Karl Lagerfeld named her as the new “face of Chanel”, noting her resemblance to the brand’s late founder, Coco.
But such a punishing schedule takes its toll, as Tennant once said, “When I was working full-on for the first five years, I would do 75 shows a season. I was exhausted. Then David and I decided we wanted to have a family.” She married the photographer David Lasnet in 1999 and had four children.
Tennant won the VH1/Vogue Model of the Year Award in 2001, was named Model of the Year at the 2011 British Fashion Awards and was inducted into the Scottish Fashion Awards Hall of Fame in 2012 as Model of the Year. That year she also appeared in the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, alongside Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, wearing creations by British designers. In 2015, she and Isabella Cawdor became consultants for the shooting and fashion brand Holland & Holland, part of Chanel, designing a range of distinctive country wear.
Edward Enninful OBE, editor-in-chief of British Vogue, told The Independent: “She is very much a British Vogue icon – the definition of British style, with a tomboyish look, eclectic taste and an incredible ability to inject cool into everything she wore.
“Our careers took off at the same time, and we worked on many fashion shows and covers together over the years. She was always so stylish, so together, so kind, so polite. At one time, she was every designer’s muse – she was the ultimate chameleon, one moment a downtown Brit, next, a stunning debutante. I last saw her in Paris, in February, and we had a laugh together, as always. I am greatly saddened by her loss – she is utterly irreplaceable.”
She died suddenly, five days after her 50th birthday, and is survived by her former husband David Lasnet and their four children, Marcel, Cecily, Jasmine and Iris.
Stella Tennant, model, born 17 December 1970, died 22 December 2020