Penelope Tree

by Kristin Tice Studeman
Twiggy. Jean Shrimpton. Veruschka. Jerry Hall. Cindy Crawford. Iman. Linda Evangelista. Christy Turlington. Stephanie Seymour. Naomi Campbell. Kate Moss. Gisele Bündchen. Penelope Tree.

The last name on that list of epic supermodels might be the most unrecognizable, and that’s perfectly fine by Tree. Since her short-lived modeling career ended rather abruptly over 40 years ago, Tree has tried her best to stay out of the limelight. Once a rebel, always a rebel, right?

Tree fell into modeling by sheer happenstance when she was spotted by none other than Diana Vreeland and Dick Avedon at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966. From there, she skyrocketed straight to the top, becoming one of the most famous of the 60s and a Vogue cover girl. With her small, pouty lips, big eyes and even bigger eyelashes, and her Mt. Rushmore cheekbones, Tree carried an unusual beauty.

It wasn’t just her unexpected, mold-breaking looks that magnetized the 60s creative set, including Avedon, Diane Arbus, David Bailey (who was also her boyfriend at one point), and Cecil Beaton, it was an indefinable inner spirit and intelligence that made her special.

“There was something in the air. It felt like something was happening that hadn’t happened before. It started with the music, and it was something that adults didn’t understand and all the young people did. Suddenly it turned into a culture,” she once said of the 60s. (She’s even been credited by Bailey for launching the whole flower-power movement.)

Just as quickly as she rose to It girl status, she fell into obscurity when she developed a mysterious skin disease that ended her career. A blessing in disguise for the unwilling icon, perhaps. “I put into those photographs all the things that I loved and that great yearning I had at the time to break away and be different,” she once said of her work.

Other than a stint modeling for Burberry with Moss and more recently, her Barneys campaign with Mario Sorrenti (see video, below), she has avoided the lens for decades and sticks to her nonprofit work. We were recently reminded of her vivid beauty when we stopped by the Richard Avedon’s Women exhibition at L.A.’s Gagosian Gallery.

Her image, hanging next to other Avedon subjects like Lauren Hutton, Veruschka, and Carmen Dell’Orefice, still remains relevant a half century later.

Penelope Tree from Barneys The Window on Vimeo.


All Black & White Portraits Of Penelope Tree Courtesy of The Richard Avedon Foundation