Patti Hansen: The Len’s Muse

Some models sit for the photographer, while for others, the photographer seems to sit for them. In the case of Patti Hansen, it’s as if the camera always trained on her, not vice versa.

Looking back at her legacy, it’s clear that some women are just born with “it”—that elusive quality that no hair stylist, makeup artist, or seasoned photographer can improve upon. Hansen broke onto the scene at the age of 16 to begin her modeling career; with a freckled face, full lips, and strawberry hair, her youth was fresh and innocent, yet highly adaptable. The Staten Island–born model was perfect for the ever-shifting decade she came to represent, the 1970s.

A recent book, Patti Hansen: A Portrait (Abrams/Condé Nast Archive), tells the story of her astonishing career arc and continuing influence today. Hansen helped shape the times and was able to reflect them; to be sure, she is still considered one of the most iconic figures from that period, and the documentation of her beauty by such genre-defining talents as Arthur Elgort, Bob Richardson, and Chris von Wangenheim also tracks the development of fashion photography throughout the ’70s. The girl who graced the cover of Vogue 12 times during that decade could play—convincingly—just about any part, from the sheepish ingénue to the stylish socialite, from the bathing-suit beauty to the jet-setting world traveler.

She would eventually leave the industry to pursue acting and then marry Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, but she returned to modeling in the 1990s and has been an inspiration to just about everyone who’s followed in her steps ever since. The impact of her influence is made clear in a personal and telling foreword by the model Karlie Kloss, who describes the early days of her own modeling career when Kloss would spend hours in lobby of Vogue magazine waiting for the booking editors to call her name. While hoping for the chance to work with the illustrious title, Kloss would gaze up at a stunning photo of Hansen that hung on the wall. Though she didn’t know Hansen or her story at the time, Kloss was transfixed nonetheless. Shot by Arthur Elgort, the image is now iconic: Hansen sports a one-piece swimsuit by Calvin Klein and stares away from the camera with a fixed intensity. “Her undeniable edge, athleticism, and all-American persona radiate through,” Kloss describes. For the anxious model looking to chart her own course, “Patti’s image in that lobby was an aspirational yet reassuring beacon.”

Patti Hansen photographed by Francesco Scavullo for Vogue, November 1975.

Over the years, Hansen would become a role model for Kloss. “From the seventies through the new millennium and beyond, there’s at least one photograph of Patti that symbolizes the culture, music, style, and fashion of each decade,” Kloss writes. As the book unfolds, Hansen’s memoir is told as a visual story, with each photo celebrating the strength and beauty of all women through the story of American’s ultimate fashion icon: Patti Hansen.