For his Spring/Summer 2003 collection, McQueen once again looked to water for inspiration. The show opened with an underwater film directed by John Maybury that showed a girl in a torn chiffon dress plunge into the sea and appear to drown. But this was not a poignant film of a lost innocent, for Irere, meaning ‘transformation’ in one of the indigenous Amazonian languages, was to tell the story of the girl’s metamorphosis from shipwreck survivor to Amazonian princess, a tale of redemption and survival.

The collection was inspired by the Roland Joffé film The Mission (1986), in which a Jesuit missionary in eighteenth-century South America attempts to protect a native tribe from Portuguese forces. McQueen referenced the periods of European discovery and the great explorers – Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook – with modern renderings of historic dress. A gold Elizabethan-style doublet with lacings down the back and ruffles at the cuffs was brought up to date with sharp cut-outs that exposed the white ground underneath.

Irere was presented in three sequences. The first models walked out to the John Maybury film as pirates who had survived the shipwreck, their hair wet and make-up smudged. Micro-mini chestnut leather skirts, worn with tattered organdie shirts and knee-high brown leather boots with curved Portuguese heels, referenced the pirate aesthetic. Fragile femininity was conveyed in McQueen’s ‘Oyster’ gown, constructed from a bodice of boned tulle and shredded
chiffon, its skirt consisting of hundreds of circles of chiffon arranged on the bias to replicate the folds on an oyster shell. This was followed by the torn chiffon dress seen on the drowning girl in the film, hinting that she had survived and was to be transformed.

Then came a sequence of designs in black – leather shirts above chiffon skirts, laser-cut harness dresses and bodysuits. One model wore an embellished cape and cone-shaped hat with buckle that evoked the seventeenth-century period of exploration. Styled with untamed hair that lent a punkish attitude, black eyes that suggested a masquerade mask, and walking to a cover version of ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ and David Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’, these models embodied the mischievous black sprites that the drowning damsel encountered in the forests on the island. The giant screen at the rear projected images in night vision, the sprites glowing an eerie shade of green.

Darkness gave way to a riot of colour for the finale, as models emerged as birds of paradise in chiffon gowns, some with bold feathered prints by Jonathan Saunders. Here McQueen pushed technological boundaries, projecting onto the screen thermal images of the models that were saturated with the vibrant colours of the tropical rainforest.