For his S/S 2003 presentation Irere (which can be seen in full here) McQueen once again looked to the ocean for inspiration, creating collection inspired by pirates, mermaids and the spectacular colour palette of the underworld. The storyline behind the collection told of a shipwreck at sea which led to a landfall in the Amazon, therefore the show was populated with conquistadors as well as Amazonian Indians – underwater imagery merged with a tribal aesthetic in order to marry land with sea, adding a touch of lightness to McQueen’s notoriously aggressive designs. The show was also accompanied by a stunning fashion film projected behind the models on an enormous video screen – opening with a woman tumbling into the ocean and ending with an army of models storming land in glorious technicolour, the film provided a visual narrative to the beauty of the clothing.
The collection truly demonstrated McQueen’s softer side at its finest, culminating in one of his most iconic garments, the ‘Oyster’ dress. Crafted from countless layers of delicate silk, Burton recalled the tale of its fabrication in an interview which accompanied the dress in the ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition. She recalled how “he wanted this idea – it was almost like she had drowned – and the top part of the dress was all fine boning and tulle, and the chiffon is all frayed and dishevelled on the top”. McQueen has often commented that the dress was one of the purest examples of the ‘lightness’ that he had learnt at Givenchy, a concept which was somewhat alien for him after having worked for so long as a tailor on Saville Row.
The show itself was divided into three sections, separated by brief visual interludes. The opening visual of the show depicts a woman drowning, a visual which transitions smoothly into the first section of the presentation which sees her as a pirate. Chiffon blouses with billowing sleeves spill over tight leather waistcoats and cropped harem trousers are accessorised with tattered silk scarves – the models all wore remnants of the ocean in their matted hair and leather pirate boots were the accessory of choice.
Suddenly, the runway was flooded with green light and the pirates turned into conquistadors – menacing villains dressed head-to-toe. Ethereal silhouettes were dyed an inky hue and accessorised with tight-fitting trophy jackets and jet-black leather whereas the beauty looks for the show were re-imagined with thick streaks of black eyeshadow and wisps of peroxide hair. At one point the soundtrack also changed abruptly, jerking from acoustic guitar to electric – at once, the black outfits became more S&M than chiffon as McQueen introduced more restrictive silhouettes and one particularly beautiful black dress which came with its own white ruff.
Finally, the video projection shows a woman entering the jungle and a tidal wave of tribal references ensue. Navajo prints in a staggering spectrum of colours flood the runway- from bold electric blues through to acid green and neon yellow, the collection is without doubt one of McQueen’s most colourful ever. References to the ocean were also present – a series of tops were designed to mimic the intricate folds of a coral reef, enshrouding the model and creating the image of a sea anemone at a technicolour rave. A spectacular feathered headdress closed out the collection as the backdrop switched to show a sea of models storming the runway and, finally, a triumphant McQueen taking a bow in a white linen suit.
The collection and its presentation showed that McQueen was one of the few designers to truly understand the spectacular impact of mixing fashion and film, and it also reinforced his ability to thread narrative into his collections and tell a story with mesmerising visuals. Once again, the designer seemed to reference his own history by proclaiming in several interviews that the lightness of the fabric throughout the collection would never have been possible without his brief appointment at Givenchy, which apparently taught him to add a touch of haute couture to everything that he did. It was also an unexpected move, showing that McQueen can do ethereal just as well as he can do savage, cementing his reputation as both a versatile designer and one that could comfortably call himself internationally-renowned.