Lagerfeld's Tennant

Karl Lagerfeld photographed Stella Tennant - his own spirit of Coco Chanel - in Biarritz. Then the wayward aristocrat retired to sculpt. Tamsin Blanchard takes stock of a brief but glittering modelling career
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She's wealthy, beautiful, intelligent, and blue-blooded, the granddaughter of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire whose family home is Chatsworth in Derbyshire. Her mother is Emma Tennant. Karl Lagerfeld has described her as "the face and attitude of our times. She does not correspond to the glamour of the Nineties. She is truly a beauty for the end of the century." And at the tender age of 26, Stella Tennant has retired. She has been there, seen it, and done it. All before her thirtieth year. It's enough to make a girl sick.

Her beauty remains, but it will not be quite so readily available for hire. Like Christy Turlington, one of the most famous faces of our times, who took early semi-retirement (give or take a Calvin Klein ad or two) to go to film school, Tennant has decided to concentrate on her private life (rumoured pregnancy) and her art as a sculptor.

It is precisely Tennant's unwillingness to play the fashion game that makes her such a hot commodity. She trained as a sculptor at Winchester School of Art and has always maintained her own attitude and identity on the catwalk. Her life took a turn when she was photographed by model svengali Steven Meisel for a "British Girls" feature in Vogue. Her jet- set career was launched along with that of her aristocratic friend Honor Fraser. Within days of the Vogue shoot, Meisel was flying Stella off to Paris to shoot a Versace campaign with Linda Evangelista and a cover for Italian Vogue.

In the early Nineties, when she first appeared on the catwalks, she would slouch her way down the runway and scowl at the photographers. She was a novelty and, believe it not, gained a reputation as a bit of an ugly duckling, a misfit. Before the eyes of the fashion press and image makers, she transformed herself into an aristocratic beauty, a perfect English Rose. Gone was the awkward posturing to be replaced by swan-like elegance and poise.

Despite her old age - 26 is the equivalent of 56 in model years - Tennant still has the potential to earn millions (dollars or pounds, it ceases to make a difference). In 1996, she signed an exclusive six-month contract said to be worth $1m to be the face of Chanel fashion. During that time, she was not allowed to model for any other designer and her Chanel jeans became a second skin. Since then, she has continued to be one of Lagerfeld's favourites, the polar opposite of his previous pet model, bouncy blonde Claudia Schiffer. Needless to say, her agencies in London and New York are both playing down the full details of her "retirement". Her earnings are too important for them to write off.

The most successful models know their limitations. Christy Turlington did not want to keep tramping those catwalks until the press started making criticisms about her weight, her thickening waistline and the onset of every tiny crow's foot (not that she has any such imperfections). Cindy Crawford stepped off the catwalk before she was kicked off and now only makes the odd celebrity appearance. The latest rumours have Kate Moss setting sail too. After all, if you had saved up $7m in your bank account, why on earth would you continue a career being chased around the catwalks of Paris, New York and Milan? And Stella Tennant can live an idyllic life dressed in her old paint-splattered Chanel rags, sculpting to her heart's content. Some girls have all the luck

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