Stella Tennant speaks with Tim Blanks about 25 years of era-defining fashion collaborations

Tim Blanks sits down with Stella Tennant to discuss her foray into the fashion world and the importance of utility for clothes at Holland & Holland in Document Journal Fall/Winter 2018.

She arrived in Vogue with a nose ring and a boy cut in 1993. It was the moment when fashion developed a contrary appetite for “freak of the week” in the wake of supermodel indigestion, and there was nothing about Stella Tennant that suggested her 15 minutes would turn into 25 years. Nothing, that is, except an uncompromising character and a particular beauty that managed to move unscathed through the ebbs and flows of fashion in the subsequent decades. Like her friend Kirsten Owen, Stella was a muse to many and a mystery to all. What was her story? She’d seldom tell. Now she and her friend Isabella Cawdor are the creative forces behind Holland & Holland, which has been kitting out British country folk since 1835. A quarter-century of Stella’s experience is distilled into reinventing a formidable legacy. Maybe this will be the vehicle for her own story. Her four children know little about her past in fashion. Shall we illuminate them?

Stella Tennant—My children aren’t too embarrassed by the way I dress—that’s good, right? They actually like borrowing my clothes. I love seeing my 18-year-old visiting a bit of ’90s Helmut Lang or an old Marc Jacobs jumper or whatever there is lurking in the background.

Tim Blanks—Did you keep things?

Stella—Oh, I’m a hoarder! I kept everything.

Tim—And why did you keep it all?

Stella—Because it’s great stuff. It didn’t go out of fashion. And when you’ve got quite a lot of it, you can rotate it quite effectively.

Tim—And is it stuff that you bought or that you were given for doing the shows?

Stella—How interested is the tax inspector in this? [Laughs] Twenty years later, we’re okay, right? I was given a lot of stuff.

Tim—What’s the stuff you cherish the most? What has the happiest memories? Helmut?

Stella—Well, yeah, because I always loved doing that show. It was very exhilarating. I loved the speed of it. I wish the designers [today] would know that we can get changed quite quickly and that we [can do more than] one look per show. For Helmut Lang, I remember having, I don’t know, five or six changes. You didn’t always make it, but it was very exciting trying. [Laughs] And you could overtake people on the runway. We had the Helmut ‘armor’ on. You know, it’s weird what the clothes can do to you, make you feel.

Tim—With your experience, how aware have you become of how clothing is character? You can assume a different persona for each of those designers that you work with.

Stella—Absolutely. I really admire people who have one haircut, one handbag, one look. I love that. I just can’t, because there’s too much choice out there, and it’s too fun to play. I really like dressing. I just went to New York last week to do a Valentino couture story, and I thought, ‘My God, I’m pushing 50, and it’s so much fun to dress up.’ [Laughs] You know?

Tim—When we were talking, you mentioned Joe McKenna, and I just remembered that thing you did with him for Self Service where the whole issue was about you.

Stella—All the different people. That was playing dress up. That was one of my favorite shoots.

Tim—It wasn’t really ‘the many faces of Stella.’ It was always this incredibly powerful personality in the middle of it all. It was never not you. When I looked at it, I thought, this is like Bette Davis or somebody. She plays a million parts, but she’s never not herself.

Stella—Can anyone not be something of themselves?

Tim—I think there’s a real genius in being multifaceted, but always… With you, there was never a particular thing. You stand for something very distinctive even when you are dressed as a man, dressed as a couture goddess, whatever. I think it’s the same with Kirsten Owen, for example. There’s that incredible power that comes from the personality, which is just rare.

“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, so, okay, done. I’m cooked.”

Stella—You know, I’ve been knocking around for 25 years. With time comes familiarity, knowing more about somebody. You’ve seen them in many different ways. So I become a bigger personality to you simply because of longevity.

Tim—Why the longevity, do you think?

Stella—I think partly because I really still enjoy it. I don’t want to work every day—of course I don’t. [Laughs] Of course I don’t want to be photographed and do fashion shows every day, but I still really enjoy seeing what creative people do. Guido [Palau] was on that shoot last week. I love working with him. He’s brilliant. His way with hair is so abstract, and his understanding of how the references work…if a certain hairstyle has a period reference or a reference to a character, he understands how to twist it and do something different and new with it. I love sitting in his chair, because you think, ‘What’s he going to do?’ And I’m a challenge, because we’ve worked together a lot. ‘Okay, so who’s coming out of the box today?’ It’s fun. And then Pat McGrath, too, makes me look very different to how I walked in in the morning. [Laughs]

Tim—So you’re learning different things about yourself all the time while you’re doing it.

Stella—In a visual way.

Tim—Yes, in a visual way. But that’s quite psychological, as well. There’s quite an impact there.

Stella—It becomes utterly irrelevant as soon as I step into my house. [Laughs] It doesn’t cross over.

Tim—Do you think that’s sustained the longevity, then? Did you ever feel you were getting caught up in fashion to a point where it was interfering with your real life?

Stella—It does interfere with it in terms of time. When I was really working full-on for the first five years, it was a very intense period. I would do 75 shows a season. I was exhausted. But then David [Lasnet] and I decided we wanted to have a family, so, okay, done. I’m cooked. I’ve given it everything, all my energy and time, and now we’re going to go off and have a family together. And I thought that was me signing out. [Laughs] Then I got asked to come back and do something, and I started doing shows and working again. I think it’s also helped that I haven’t been available. People like it when you’re not available.

Tim—But you saw casualties among people who were close to you. You saw what happens to people when they…I guess when they have nothing else, maybe.

Stella—It’s not necessarily not having anything else. It’s a very confusing business. It’s the weirdest thing to try to understand the attention that you get as a model. You have to really put it aside, okay? You can enjoy it, you can get a buzz out of it, but you have to keep it in its box, under control. Otherwise, you can get carried away and believe the hype. It’s a fickle business. You’re reliant on the next job, and you don’t have control over that. People have said to me, ‘Oh, you just choose the stuff that you want to do.’ No, I don’t choose the stuff I want to do. I edit what I’m offered. It’s not the same thing. I can say no, but I can’t say exactly what I want to do.

Tim—One thing you have defied, too, is a sense that it always ends. I remember one model saying to me once that she will be taken out of fashion in a box. She thought it was never going to end…and, of course, it did. I watched so many people I loved when the calls stopped coming.

Stella—You’ve got to make sure you’ve got a backup plan. I would never put all my eggs in that basket. I was lucky I started later, and I had done other things beforehand and had some time to develop some other interests.

Tim—Did it take you by surprise?

Stella—When I started? Well, yeah. Why would I think that I was going to start modeling? I had tried when I was 18, and I’d done castings in East London, because my sister’s boyfriend at the time had an agency. No one was interested. I think I did one test shoot. I’d tried it and it hadn’t worked, and so I just got on with my life as previously planned. So when I did that shoot with Steven Meisel and then he booked me for the Versace thing the following week, that was pretty convenient. I’d just done my degree show and I didn’t actually know how I was going to make any money with my sculpture.

Tim—Where’s the sculpture now?

Stella—I don’t think any of it exists. I did a really nice bath, this beautiful Victorian bath that was endlessly overflowing in the woods up in the Highlands. [Laughs] But it got washed out in a flood a couple of years ago. I can’t think what might still exist. Anyway, I had a few shoots in that punky moment, and then fashion went back into something glamorous and more beautiful, and the agency didn’t really know what to do with me. I thought, ‘Well, that’s not a surprise. I’ve had my little moment, and fashion’s moved on, and I’ll be moving along, too.’ And then, I can’t think quite what happened—maybe I started working with Paolo Roversi or something—but it picked up.

Shirt and skirt by Holland & Holland. Photography: Nicole Maria Winkler. Fashion: Alice Lefons. Hair: Johnnie Biles at D+V Management using Leonor Greyl. Make Up: Anne Sophie Costa at D+V Management using Bobbi Brown.

Tim—I so remember when I saw you not being the nose-ring girl. I thought, ‘Wow, she actually made a transition.’ I was so impressed!

Stella—It was a really interesting time. The first show that I was supposed to do was Versace, because I’d done the Versace advertising kind of by mistake. I don’t think Gianni Versace knew anything about it. Steven and Donatella sort of smuggled me into the shoot and stuck me on the cover of Italian Vogue. I didn’t have an agency or anything. I had never done a fashion show before, and I turned up in Milan for the rehearsal. It was when you would send out three models at the same time, threes and twos and spin and turn and gloves and hats and take off your jacket. [Laughs] You know? I’m very malcoordinated. You know when you see people doing a dance routine, and they really can’t do it? [Laughs]

Tim—Like Theresa May.

Stella—I was like Theresa May on that runway. [Laughs] And I was nervous, chewing gum, and Gianni stopped the music mid-rehearsal. It was the mega, mega models: Karen Mulder, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss…unbelievably intimidating. He stopped the music and said, ‘Who is that?’ It’s like the nightmare that you have, the anxiety fashion dream. Anyway, the music went back on, and I turned up the next day to do the show. They said, ‘Sorry, you’ve been canceled, but no one could get hold of you because you don’t have an agency.’ [Laughs] I hadn’t made the transition then.

Tim—When did he come around?

Stella—Not long after. But that was a long time ago. A lot’s happened since then.

Tim—Indeed. Let’s talk about Holland & Holland. It’s a very interesting distillation of everything—your experience with image-making, your sense of telling a story through images, which was all being honed by everything you’ve done in the last 25 years. Was this a sort of fruition for you?

Stella—It was a very interesting proposition. Initially, I said [no], I really don’t know how to do that. When Isabella Cawdor said that she would be up for working together on it, then it became something that was possible. Isabella’s got a whole wealth of experience that I don’t have. She’s a stylist, and she has worked with designers and done things on her own, as well. She knows the beginning-to-end process. I had no experience of sourcing fabrics, of putting looks together or making clothes. So that’s a really exciting part of it. And with Isabella, we’ve been great friends for over 20 years, so that’s a friendship that has turned into a working friendship that we’re both still enjoying.

Tim—You have a very acute sense of how clothes feel on your body, how clothes can make you feel good and look good, which must be incredibly useful in a project like this.

Stella—I think that’s my point in there, that I’ve worn so many clothes. It’s the only bit on my CV that makes any sense for me to do this job. I know what I like to feel, and I know where a pair of trousers or a skirt sits, how it fits your body. And the silhouette—I know what I want to look like, too.

Tim—Well, that comes back to my very first thing: what you feel you represent.

Stella—What’s great about Holland & Holland is that it’s extremely specific. All of these clothes have to function in a particular way. And there is a boundary: That shirt’s too cocktail-y; that’s not what we do. This summer skirt looks like you might be wearing it in Saint-Tropez; that’s not what we do. It’s quite a tight remit, and I find that very helpful. Otherwise, because I’m so eclectic, I’d be all over the place.

Tim—It’s like casting, in a way, isn’t it? I was talking to Demna Gvasalia about Balenciaga and how when you’re doing a collection, it’s like making a movie. You’ve got music, you’ve got actors, you’ve got a scenario. Being aware of all those different elements that tell a story.

Stella—That’s what we’re doing. That’s why it’s so important for us to travel with the brand, because you need to bring it alive. You need the backdrop to it. Most clothes on their own are quite ordinary. While our clothes shouldn’t feel ordinary when you put them on, they need to be in their context. You need to make people dream about where you are going with these clothes. You want to go to Argentina, you want to go to Mongolia, you want to go to Namibia. Those are where we shot our summer collections. And we’ve been staying at home for the Winter collections, because obviously it makes sense to be in Yorkshire, in the Highlands, on the West Coast.

“I know what I like to feel, and I know where a pair of trousers or a skirt sits, how it fits your body. And the silhouette—I know what I want to look like, too.”

Tim—How did you choose Mongolia, for example? You wanted to go there?

Stella—Yeah. [Laughs]

Tim—That’s the best kind of decision-making, isn’t it?

Stella—You look at the world, and you go, ‘Hmm…’

Tim—You know where you have to go now, don’t you? New Zealand.

Stella—Jamie Hawkesworth [the photographer] is very keen to go there. He’s just the right kind of photographer, because he’s got that documentary style about him. He brings a modernity to the pictures. Otherwise, we’ll be looking like the back page of Country Life.

Tim—Yes, that’s exactly the challenge. So who are you making these images for? Because the huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’ set isn’t looking for Jamie Hawkesworth photos of Stella Tennant, windswept and angst-ridden on a rock face somewhere…

Stella—[Laughs] Damn! I’m not going to look angst- ridden on our next shoot.

Tim—So this is to broaden Holland & Holland’s horizons? To crack a new audience?

Stella—We don’t want to scare anybody away. We’re making proper country clothes.

Tim—But is this the fantasy of the country? Or is it the real country? You live the real country.

Stella—I live the real country. I wear all these clothes at home. I don’t keep them for coming to town in. [Laughs] I’m a country girl. I grew up on a farm in the Borders.

Tim—And this authenticity is what you want to communicate?

Stella—Yeah. We’ve always said that these clothes should be good for anyone who’s got to deal with the weather, basically. There are technical clothes out there. If you want to look like that, that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that. But I don’t want to look like that. [Laughs] There is a technical element, but the point is we don’t want it to look like you’re wearing mountaineering clothes.

Tim—These clothes exist for a reason—not, ‘This is the trend’ or ‘This is the look of the moment.’

Stella—We’re really not about the look of the moment. We’re never going to be making miniskirts.

Tim—Do you need to recognize fashionability in it, though, on any level?

Stella—I think you do. You know how it is with jeans? Jeans that you loved ten years ago, generally you don’t ever love them now. There’s just some small detail—the waistband’s a bit too high or they’re a bit too baggy around the knee. It’s small. But with our clothes—probably I’m contradicting myself now—you are aware of what’s current. You just are, without you being conscious of it. You are just sort of in the mood of now.

Tim—I was looking at one of the lookbooks…I guess it must have been an Autumn/Winter one, with the portraits of the very sturdy-looking men…

Stella—Oh, the first one. Those are keepers who work at Isabella’s. That’s the other part of it, Isabella knows that [environment] inside out. They run an estate in the Highlands.

Tim—You could almost see it as a shoot in a magazine. It would have looked so right in L’Uomo Vogue.

Stella—I think one of the reasons why we were approached is because Isabella and I did a shoot with Bruce Weber years ago for Italian Vogue up at her place in Scotland.

Tim—It’s so Bruce, all of this. Did you learn anything from him when you worked with him? There’s always a narrative.

“It was very, very hot wearing tweed. It was disgusting, sticking to me, so I said, ‘Well, what if we took a picture diving in to that swimming pool?”

Stella—Always. I love the stories I’ve done with Bruce. One of my favorites was a shoot that we did for American Vogue up in the Adirondacks. He casts me with some incredibly handsome, silent type, poetic…oh, my God. I nearly fell for him. Luckily, I didn’t.

Tim—[Laughs] That’s not you diving into the swimming pool in the evening dress, is it?

Stella—No. I did a photo like that with Arthur Elgort, but in a tweed suit.

Tim—I love that photograph.

Stella—What’s hilarious is that it was incredibly hot—that’s how I did my first American Vogue shoot. They canceled a story, and they were doing a reshoot. Grace [Coddington] manages to sneak me in—they were all kind of sneaking me in when the editors didn’t really want me there—and I flew from Inverness to Long Island to do that shoot. It was very, very hot wearing tweed, wearing the Winter collection. It was disgusting, sticking to me, so I said, ‘Well, what if we took a picture diving into that swimming pool?’ It’s torture being photographed next to water when you can’t get in. Anyway, they went for it, so we did it.

Tim—It was your idea!

Stella—It was my idea!

Tim—But it’s one of the most famous Vogue photographs.

Stella—It’s a brilliant photo.

Tim—All of that experience…do you feel all of it was an education, then? That everything you did—watching Bruce Weber work, watching Grace Coddington work, watching Guido Palau work…

Stella—Yeah, all of it. I loved being part of that team. I just happen to be the one that gets photographed at the end.

Tim—Do you think you could do Holland & Holland without having done all of that?

Stella—No, definitely not. That’s sort of why I’m there, because of everything that’s come before.

Tim—Everything happens for a reason. Do you believe in destiny?

Stella—No, not really. You come to forks in the road all the time. I said to my daughter, ‘What do you do when you come to a fork in the road?’ [And she answered,] ‘Just…pick it up?’ [Laughs] You endlessly are coming to choices. But I feel that you make the choice.