Stella Tennant (Jan,2006)
WHEN I arrive at Berwick-upon-Tweed railway station to meet Stella Tennant, who is photographed on no fewer than six pages of the new Vogue modelling the new Burberry Prorsum collection, I am prepared. I am in a Burberry raincoat, Burberry floral shirt and grey Burberry V-neck sweater. This is what you wear to the Scottish borders, isn't it?
But when Stella, 35, hares up to the station in the most beaten-up, mud-splattered car I have ever seen, she is wearing an old parka, jeans that reach only halfway down her calves (she is 6ft) and Converse sneakers that have seen better days.
Her hair is bleached and sticking up on end, and she is bare of make-up. Shouldn't someone who has been acclaimed as a Great British Beauty at least have the latest Chanel winter balm on her lips? "I never bother with skin creams or make-up or hair conditioner or anything," she says cheerfully as she pulls away from the station. "Good skin, great beauty, it's all down to good genes."
She has been dealt her fair share of those. Her maternal grandmother is the Duchess of Devonshire, the former Deborah Mitford, who, at the age of 85, is still active and elegant. "I persuaded Granny to do a shoot with me and Bruce Weber not so long ago," Stella says, "and as well as posing with her beloved chickens in a Traina-Norell ball gown, she put on a black Helmut Lang jacket with white cuffs and she just looked stunning."
The legendary Mitford sisters (Stella never met her great-aunt, Nancy, author of Love in a Cold Climate, who died before she was born, but has fond memories of Diana, who married Oswald Moseley) must have an incredible wardrobe that Stella raids? "Oh no, dressing up in my grandmother's clothes is just not me," she says. "If the elegant gene was going to kick in, I think it would have done so by now, don't you?"
After half an hour in the car, we career through a pair of impressive gates, up a winding track and there is Stella's house, a Georgian mansion built in 1741, with eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, even its own stream and elegant little bridge. It all looks worryingly idyllic until we enter the bootroom and it is like a scene from one of Nancy's books: dog baskets, toys, Hunter wellingtons, mess and smells. Stella and her French husband, David Lasnet, bought the house in 2002 for just under half a million and have spent thousands renovating it.
It is freezing, but neither Stella nor David, who emerges clutching their one-year-old daughter, Iris, seem to notice. Their oldest children - Marcel, seven, and Cecily, five - are at the local primary school, presumably to keep warm [they also have a three-year-old, Jasmine]. "We have only just switched the radiators on!" beams Stella.
This scene couldn't be further from the world of high fashion, but Stella claims she doesn't miss it at all. "I have a real life," she says. "Yes, it was amazing when I was discovered by Isabella Blow and shot by Steven Meisel and whisked off to Paris to shoot a Versace campaign, and there I was in a room with Linda Evangelista, but I'm not interested in power and money and status." Isn't that easy to say, though, when summer holidays were spent exploring Chatsworth House?
The current Vogue pictures were shot on several hundred acres of Yorkshire owned by Stella's family; Christmas was spent at their castle in Ireland. "Yes, I am privileged, I went to boarding school, but my parents aren't rich; they are farmers."
Tobias and Lady Emma live an hour and a half's drive away, in Roxburghshire, on a 15,000-acre sheep farm, which is where Stella and her brother, Eddy, and sister, Isabel, grew up - and which Stella found so boring she started smoking at the age of eight. She hated Marlborough but did her A-levels there because the art course was highly respected, then studied sculpture at Winchester art school. She only started modelling when she was 21. "That was why I was able to take it in my stride," she says. "When you are 16 you really are not ready. Even girls as skinny as I was were told by Valentino, say, to lose a few pounds, and that criticism destroyed them."
She met David on a shoot with Mario Testino. "I asked him out, yes," she laughs. "When I want something I'm not afraid to go and get it." David gave up photography - "I am often the 'ouse 'uzband" - and I ask if he misses it. "No, not at all. Mario spotted me in the street and asked me to model for him; I only became his assistant because I was broke."
He is now studying part-time to be an osteopath, which means frequent trips to London. I ask Stella if that makes her nervous. "We've been together for 12 years and I hadn't thought about infidelity until one of my close friends told me that her relationship is in trouble because of an affair. She asked me who David stays with when he is in town and had I met them, and when I said no, she said I must be mad. But I'm not."
Stella, who oozes confidence, earned several million as the face of Chanel early in her career. She only works now when she feels like it. In the next few days she will be flying to Paris to appear in the Dior couture show for John Galliano.
Is he a friend? "I would say John is a close colleague." Does she miss the catwalk? "God, no," she says. "David used to come with me, but after a day being pulled apart and prodded and pinned and having your make-up and hair done, I couldn't even bear for him to touch me. Plus, how ridiculous would I look walking out in front of a 16-year-old Estonian?" But Kate Moss keeps working, I point out. "She is the exception. I bumped into Kristen McMenamy [the model famous for her punkish looks] the other day and she, too, has four children. You have to work out what your priorities are."
Helmut Lang, who designed her simple wedding shift, is someone she admires. "Because he is no longer designing clothes [his label was bought by Prada] doesn't mean he has lost his identity; that whole idea that work should mean everything is ludicrous... Motherhood is the most important thing in the world to me."
So serious is Stella about motherhood that she has just given their nanny her notice. "I said to David that he works part-time, I work part-time, why on earth do we need help with the children? Who better to look after them than their parents? And if some people think I am letting the feminist side down, I don't care." I tell Stella that she must worry about her figure sometimes, having given birth four times (all at home, all without pain relief) and she admits she bought a bicycle with the plan of cycling down to the village, but gave up on the idea because it was too windy.
Much has been written about her family and the supposed family curse. Her uncle, Lord Glenconner, frittered away much of the family fortune before buying the island of Mustique, where he proceeded to live a playboy existence. One of his sons, Henry, died of Aids in 1990 at the age of 29. His eldest son, Charlie, became a heroin addict and died at 39. A third, Christopher, was in a motorbike accident and is brain-damaged.
Stella doesn't believe in curses, but her gilded life has been tinged by tragedy. Her best friend, Sebastian, whom she first met aged 18, was helping to renovate her New York apartment when he fell off the roof. "I was pregnant with Marcel and we were in London when we got the call," she says. "I remember asking: 'How badly is he hurt?' And they told me he was dead."
Did they still move into the apartment? "Yes, we did; he was an architect and he had worked too hard on it, living in it was like a memorial to him."
David puts some lentils on to soak for dinner - "We have only been out to eat once since we moved here," says Stella - and then they drag me out into the biting wind for a walk around their 18 acres. The four children, who all have Stella's eyes and impeccable manners, and Quill, the black Labrador, accompany us. The children dig happily in the mud with the dog. "We are trying to bring them up to be bilingual," she shouts against the wind. "When David has to study full-time in London we will live in Paris for a couple of years." Won't you miss all this? "No, it's just a house." She is off to Milan before she heads for Paris, to show her support at the Burberry menswear show. How will she tear herself away? "I am looking forward to being able to soak in a bath without someone telling me they need a pee," she says. I tell her I will be at the Dior show. "Come and see me backstage!" she shouts, and I really think she means it.