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FASHION / SENSE OF STYLE

Chanel's New Face: Pale, World-Weary and Hip

May 16, 1996|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

"I think she is the dream of the modern girl for the late 20th century," designer Karl Lagerfeld says, referring to Stella Tennant, the model he personally chose to represent Chanel's fall-winter '96 collection. Tennant, a 25-year-old former art student and sculptor from Scotland with a pedigree that includes a titled set of grandparents, was discovered three years ago by Steven Meisel, who photographed her for British Vogue. Since then, she's abandoned her nose ring and become a fixture on the runways of Milan, Paris and New York.

Lagerfeld, who also photographs Chanel's fashion advertisements, has an interesting record with models. The fine-featured brunet Ines de la Fressange was his first pick as the face of Chanel. At the height of her modeling career she was also chosen as Marianne, the symbol of French femininity and Gallic equivalent of a Miss America / Betsy Ross / Betty Crocker hybrid whose likeness graces every city hall there. Lagerfeld considered what Marianne represented too bourgeois an image for his top model and fired De la Fressange. She then validated his decision by becoming a successful designer of pretty, proper clothes favored by young French matrons.

Although modeling agents spotted Claudia Schiffer dancing in a Dusseldorf, Germany, disco in 1987, her career really took off when Lagerfeld anointed her as his favorite six years later. She went on to become an exercise video, calendar and theme-restaurant star with an income demanding residency in tax-free Monaco and a protracted engagement that has millions of men scratching their heads and asking, "Why him?"

Tennant's most unusual feature is her raven-black hair, which is shorn short as a prisoner's and styled in angry spikes. It was blond models who dominated the most recent round of international fashion shows--not sexy, sunny, Southern California types but pale, sad, strung-out girls who brought to their work the vacant expressions of lobotomy victims.

With her world-weary posture and sepulchral air, Tennant has much in common with the vitamin-deficient crop currently favored by designers, but this dream of a modern woman seems to have a sense of humor. Since her Chanel contract prevents her from working for any other designer for six months, she attended Helmut Lang's fall show in Paris as a spectator. A Mighty Morphin Power Rangers backpack was slung over her slender shoulder.

"The audience that fashion designers wanted to reach four years ago is a radically different one from the one they're pursuing now," says Michael Gross, author of "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women" (Warner Books, 1995).

"No matter who they're actually selling to, designers want to be identified with models like Stella Tennant, who have the free soul of the grungy kids on the street. The irony is, that image is used to sell to the likes of Blaine Trump. The women who buy Chanel or Versace are buying instant hip, and they're buying it because they don't have it. They want to take on the coloration of the kids who seem to be the most fashionable now. In going from Claudia to Stella, Lagerfeld is doing the same thing for his label."

* Sense of Style appears on Thursdays in Life & Style.

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