Here's where the story ends.

In the early hours of the morning of February 11, 2010, in the wake of his mother's death, before she was even buried, Alexander McQueen locked all the doors and prepared to kill himself. He swallowed down a mixture of zopiclone sleeping pills, tranquilisers and cocaine, then tried to cut open his wrists. Bleeding, he took the belt from his bathrobe, tied one end around his neck and the other to the shower head. But the shower head buckled under his weight, so he found another belt and hanged himself - successfully this time - from the railing inside his own closet.

So ended the life of Britain's most controversial, outrageous and outrageously talented fashion designer of his generation. "A genius is lost - and darkness has won," one newspaper headline suggested at the time.

The son of a Scottish father, McQueen, Lee to his friends, was an East End boy - a "cockney geezer" according to his Scottish fitting model Lauren Tempany - who brought a blacker-than-black (and blackly comic) vision to the art of couture. McQueen was lauded by fashionistas and worked with the most flamboyant pop stars of the time - from Bjork to Lady Gaga. He was hired by Givenchy and saw his skull motif graduate to every high street in the UK.

But he had demons, was troubled by depression and drug addiction and the darkness seeped into his work. In 1995 he made his name with a catwalk show entitled Highland Rape. Models, their breasts exposed through ripped dresses, strode down the catwalk, a comment, he always said, on the Highland clearances. Some just saw a desire for controversy, others something misogynistic.

He would return to Scottish history again, in his 2006-2007 show Widows of Culloden, a very different show, more romantic, softer even. But still utterly distinctive. There would be other shows. But not many. Not enough. He was just 40 when he killed himself. His ashes were scattered on the Isle of Skye.

Reputations can go into retreat when people die. There's a pattern. Shock, sadness and then a gentle sinking into irrelevance. If you're lucky you may, posthumously some years down the line, be rediscovered.

This didn't happen with McQueen. His reputation never faded. Partly that's because his friend Sarah Burton continued with the label and took it in some ways to greater heights (culminating in a royal wedding dress of course), and partly because McQueen was too protean a talent to ignore.

And so when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibition, Savage Beauty, in May 2011, it saw record-breaking ticket sales. Dana Thomas, McQueen's biographer, went to see it and talked to the people who were lined up for hours in a queue that snaked out into Central Park. "I wanted to know who were all these people." It turned out they were everybody. "There were tourists, there were students, there were retirees, there were men with their wives, there were people who just said 'I keep hearing about this, so I figure I should go see'. It was young, old, middle-aged, black, white, yellow; a complete cross-section of the world."

Now the world has another chance to see the exhibition when it opens - refreshed and recalibrated - in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There will be 244 items all told, at the last count. "We may squeeze a few more in," says Kate Bethune, senior research assistant at the V&A. "It's the largest ever retrospective of McQueen and the largest fashion exhibition the V&A has ever mounted."

It's an inevitable prompt to remember the man behind the work. What was he like to work with? Why was Scotland so important to him? What was he really saying in those controversial shows? What follows, then, are the memories of those who interned for McQueen, who spent time in his company; a friend and a biographer, a curator and a fellow designer, recalling the man in their own words. And the story begins in Fort William.

Judy Clark

Scottish fashion designer Judy Clark was an intern in the McQueen studio for six months in 2008.

"They called out of the blue when I was working in a cafe in Fort William and asked if I wanted to come down for an interview. I made a jacket at my mum and dad's house from my uncle's Harris Tweeds and took it down to the interview with a few other garments I'd made. Had the interview. They liked my hair because I looked a bit like Braveheart. I had it all up in a big quiff and pleats.

" Then on the day they said 'yeah, you've got the position when can you start?' But I was in the middle of my driving lessons and only had two weeks to go so it wasn't until after then that I could go down. Luckily I passed my test.

"I was one of 12 interns to Caroline Tixier, senior womenswear designer. They were getting the cream of the crop of graduates to come in and they were essentially producing the work for the company. There were some beautiful artists creating illustrations and then McQueen would come up and say 'I'm choosing that one' and that would be the autumn print.

"The people that were there to get the experience and they loved doing that. Nobody resented that. They were just absolutely delighted that he was keen to take them on."

"He would come up with one of his ideas and then the whole team would get to work on his concepts, so things like manipulating leather, dyeing things in the dye room to fit round his themes. One of the themes was scarification. We had to look at African tribes and how they did that to their skin and then try and look at how you can embellish fabric to replicate those markings. There was a lot of photocopying for mood boards. His whole walls were covered in them. But he might change his mind every two weeks so all the work you've done gets documented and put to one side because it might get pulled out at a later date. You might have been working on a masterpiece for a week and then it's scrapped and you move on to the next thing in his head.

"You were never going to be his friend or have a conversation with him. That was never going to happen. He held the door open for me one time and I said thanks.

"You just respected him. He was really quiet, he was really shy. But I think in his own personal design studio space he probably was a bit more open. I was working back there when he was at his desk with friends and I think they had some ballerina pink tutus on and were having an absolute scream, and you just knew there was some cheeky good fun guy there. But he didn't want to express himself too much in front of his interns, which I really like actually because I'm not into the big fashion thing. I really like that he wore Nike trainers and a T shirt and didn't feel he had to dress up and wear really exuberant clothing like a lunatic to be noticed. His clothes did that for him."

Lauren Tempany

Linlithgow-born, Glasgow-based model worked as McQueen's fitting model at the start of the century.

"The first time I met him was in 2001 when he was at Givenchy. I think I was 19 then. It was a fitting for a Givenchy show. I had just finished school and I was very new to modelling. That was the first time I worked with him and it was at the end of his time with Givenchy. I think at that point he was just getting a bit fed up of being told what to do. He was such a free spirit. I think the thing about McQueen that's so special is that he was a true artist. He didn't have anyone telling him what to do. He had no restraint. A lot of the time now the artist is shaped by the business but his business didn't restrict him as an artist whatsoever and that's why he's so special.

I didn't get to know him at all. It was just going in and being a body basically. And it wasn't until 2003 when I was 21 that I was cast by him as his in-house model at McQueen. I was on contract for just over a year. I spent a lot of time with him.

"I always remember that day we had the casting. There was a queue of models literally around the block. Every girl in town wanted to get the gig. You're nervous and excited, but he was a normal dude. That's what I loved about him. He was a bit of a geezer. I'm sure part of the reason he took a liking to me was I had on my old-school Adidas three stripe trainers.

"He would always have trainers on jeans, a T shirt and a big gold chain he just looked like a total geezer. As much as I was intimidated by him he seemed quite normal, you know. Certainly the more I got to know him there's this side of him that was so big and so talented and so deep and dark that I don't think many people know. Not that he was ever obviously dark around anyone but I remember plenty of times going in and he just wouldn't turn up. He was unpredictable.

But on the surface he was always a cockney geezer type and a lot of the people he surrounded himself with were nice normal people. I was there pretty much every day. If I had other jobs that were good jobs I would skip out for the day but he could be quite possessive sometimes. If I was working for other people that he maybe didn't respect. I would turn up at the studio - a huge Victorian building - and he would work with just one piece of cloth which I always found amazing. He would stand with one roll of material and create a dress on the spot and you would see it in the show a few months later. Sarah Burton would be there, Katy England would be there and Katy's assistant Mhairi Gibb who's a Scottish girl and also Katy's husband Bobby Gillespie is Scottish and Bobby would come and pick up Katy a lot and Bobby and McQueen were friends. There were a lot of Scottish voices in the building.

"Before the shows it would get really crazy. We would go out to Paris before the show and we would all stay in a hotel and sometimes I would get phone calls at four in the morning. 'Can you come to the studio? Lee's had an idea.' They'd caught word that Anna Wintour was coming in the morning.

"I did a few of the really big shows. I did the Fall Winter 2004 show where they basically built a spacecraft in Paris. It was a huge production. Backstage would always be chaos. Nick Knight used to be backstage and he would take your picture when you came of backstage. Kate Moss would be there, all the big models Kara Elson.

"I think as I got to know him more and more it is that classic tale of someone who is so gifted and talented, who has this talent and it's so recognisable and it also can be a burden for people as well as a gift and I think he is a classic example of that. There is a dark side. There is something bubbling underneath that you maybe never get to know.

"There was a show called The Black Show where Kate Moss danced with Michael Clark. I think it was my 22nd birthday that week and after the show he came up to me and gave me a big hug and went 'happy birthday, this is your late birthday present', and he pointed at a dress. And I was like 'are you joking?' He said 'no, it's yours. I want you to have it' and gave me the most beautiful dress. It was called the bondage dress and I've got it still in my wardrobe. He was very kind and giving. He was very normal in lots of ways but also on another planet."

Graeme Armour

Currently doing consultancy work with Rita Ora for Adidas, the Glaswegian designer interned with McQueen as part of his college course in 2003 and continued to freelance for the label before working on the McQ range after completing his Masters.

"Lee used to go to a club called The End in London and whenever I saw him there he always bought me a drink, but then when we were at work he would never talk to me. He was always pleasant, but he was quite private. He only liked the people who were his 'rocks'. He didn't like people coming in and intruding. It was quite a personal thing for him doing the fittings.

All his boyfriends were generally Scottish. I remember making bow ties when he went to collect his OBE. He was wearing his kilt. Me and Sarah were talking about how he loved Scottish people. I don't know if it was because of his dad but there were always loads of Scottish people involved. I think he maybe just found there's a darkness around Scotland - the history and the weather.

"He died the night before my first show in New York. My friend phoned me and said he's just committed suicide. I was just starting my career and not that I was his best friend but that's the place where I built my knowledge to enable me to do my own show and he died the night before I started my career really. There was a feeling of loss there.

"From my observation he was a creative genius who was just personally tormented by something and that's obviously what helped his fashion. There was this torment in shows like Highland Rape. It was quite controversial. But he was always polite. He was just passionate about everything he did. And always swearing.

Kate Bethune

Senior Research Assistant for the V&A's exhibition.

"It's so cliched to say he changed the face of fashion but he really did. The level of innovation and ingenuity but it's always underpinned by craftmanship at the highest level. For me one of the most fascinating things about him is his extraordinary use of materials. He didn't just render his designs in fabric. You've got dresses made out of hand painted glass microscope slides, skirts made out of balsa wood coats made out of raffia bodices made out of mussel shells it's just astonishing.

"McQueen's personal history was quite important to him and he often said his collections were quite biographical and this is where the Scottish element came in. His father was Scottish and came from the Isle of Skye. He was quite frustrated with the romanticisation and the mythologising of Scottish history.

"McQueen was often provocative and controversial and he was often direct with his references and he's often been accused of misogyny. But if you think about the Highland Rape collection and how those models were presented that wasn't the case at all. McQueen admired women and he wanted to create strong powerful women, fearless women, and he wanted to galvanise women with his designs.

"If you actually look at the models on the catwalk for Highland Rape they're wearing these incredibly haunting black and mirrored contact lenses. They look fearless, they look almost like someone you should be afraid of. There was a misunderstanding of what the collection was about with its contentious title. He actually saw it as the rape of a culture by English aggressors. It was a political collection in many respects. He wanted to go back and address the Highland Clearances and the subjugation of Scotland by the English in the 18 and 19th centuries.

"And this was the first collection where he integrated the MacQueen tartan and he sourced that from the Lochcarron Mill and that re-emerges in the Widows of Culloden which was 11 years later and that was a completely different aesthetic. It's a much softer more romantic rendering of Scotland's past. Still looking at an aspect of political atrocity - an elegy to the widows who lost their husbands in that battle -but this was 11 years later this is post his time as chief designer at Givenchy and you can see that real refinement and that real softness that comes into those designs. He said himself that he wanted each one of those pieces to be considered an heirloom. Every piece is invested with emotional content, every piece in that collection is rendered to the most exceptional level of craftmanship.

"The Widows of Culloden is my favourite collection because it's just so powerful and emotional. And there's a particular dress in it. McQueen loved birds. He was a birdwatcher as a child and you can see references to his love for ornithology throughout his collections, whether it inspired the silhouette of a dress, a jacket or a print motif.

"But some pieces he rendered entirely out of feathers and there's an incredible dress, a full length gown with a tiered skirt, that is made entirely from pheasant feathers that have been individually hand stitched to lengths of ribbon and then the bands of ribbon have been stitched onto a net ground and it's just ingenious for its construction. It is one of the many examples that McQueen managed to merge woman and animal or woman and bird using avian human hybrids and it's absolutely beautiful."

Kent Baker

The photographer was friendly with McQueen in the mid-nineties. His photographs of McQueen's 1996 show Dante have now been gathered in a new book, Inferno (Laurence King, £24.95).

"Dante was definitely the show that established him, although he was already making a lot of noise. I'd been to all of his shows so I'd seen that rise coming through. He was always a showman for sure. That was one of his greatest strengths. You can do great clothes but if you don't show them with that dynamic it doesn't stay with people

"With Dante I think it was probably the first show that he did on a location that really fitted his aesthetic for the collection, one of the Hawksmoor churches which are kind of infamous. The atmosphere was palpable and it was the last show where I guess he was scrabbling around to get all the components. But in a way that's what makes it charming. It was still begged borrowed and stolen and out of that came this amazing collection.

"I knew this guy had a lot of talent. He liked to party like we all do. We went out and had some drinks one night and it was very late and he said 'I've got to get these patterns cut.' And I said 'Dude, it's two in the morning and I'm feeling worse for wear'. But anyway we went down to his studio and I watched him cut patterns faultlessly, absolutely faultlessly and at such speed. I was like 'Wow this guy could do this with his eyes shut in the dark'. It was all in his head.

"He needed everything to be just so and didn't have much tolerance when things weren't going the way he needed them to go. I think some people thought him quite harsh and unkind. But at the same time you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs and he was never afraid to say what was on his mind to get what he needed to get done.

After Dante I think he did one more but I think it was already set in stone that Givenchy was focusing on him and then of course it just exploded and the millions rolled in. But you lose something with that. You lose something when the corporate side of things take over and on a personal level it was probably too much too fast for him. There was definitely an element of this little guy lost in this huge expectation and pressure.

"In the early days the people he was working with right up to Dante and a little bit beyond were his friends and they were quite good at keeping him in check because they're not afraid. When it got bigger and he had to start employ more and more people that was nerve-wracking for him and there is an element of loss of control and you get surrounded by those yes people. They're afraid of you. And I think that was not necessarily good for him.

"My thoughts about him later on were this lost boy. He seemed to be a bit lost and not happy. We all perceive happiness to a certain extent success and money are part of that package but I don't think for Lee it was about that at all. And once he had that he realised that he was less content than he'd ever been. Because the pressure takes over and where's the joy? You can never drop the ball you can never have a bad day and you can never do a bad collection. I think that is an enormous pressure.

Dana Thomas

A contributing editor for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Thomas has written a biography of McQueen and John Galliano entitled Gods and Kings (Allen Lane, £25)

"I think he was a much greater talent than we realised at the time. In large part because we'd see his work every three months, six months for just 20 minutes. When you stand back and take a look at it it's really quite remarkable - the work of a great artist who died young. A Van Gogh or Modigliani. At the time no one realised this was a genius in their midst.

"He lived a life without boundaries socially and artistically. His work was really profound. He lived a life without rules because he grew up in a house with a patriarchal father and he used to call himself the pink sheep of the family. Art wasn't terribly encouraged nor was homosexuality. He was bullied. he was picked on, he was beaten up at school. He had to develop a tough shell, but down inside he was a very sensitive soul.

"In the east end you don't dance around the subject and say all the politically correct things. You speak your mind and you are respected for it. That's what he did through his work. He didn't think about fashion through hemlines and shoulders. He was using clothes to make much bigger statements from the very beginning. For his first show Nihilism he was inspired by the famine in Africa created by natural disasters such as floods and pestilence so he and his friend Simon Ungless made this dress covered in locusts, as if the wearer was being devoured by the locusts. Now that's a pretty huge sociological statement. And he's using clothes to make it. It wasn't about making women look pretty, it was about giving women strength and making a statement on our culture today. That's what artists do.

"He would fold all sorts of different things into one story. The shows had a far more complicated narrative than pink is the new black. With Highland Rape he was quite moved by the clearing of the Highlands. He was also anti-royalist. It was a slam at all the institutions. But also there was a great pride in his family that's why he chose the MacQueen tartan.

"These women were running down the catwalk looking as if they'd been attacked but they were still up and running. It was about the strength of women the strength of the Scottish, about history, a swipe at the royal family and a proper nod to his family's roots.

"I think he was happiest back in the days when he was with his friend Simon Ungless in their council house in Tooting Bec and they were just making things and none of it was really selling and living on the dole. But they were having fun. By the end he wasn't having fun. He felt he was on a treadmill he could not get off of.

"He had been talking about suicide for 20 years. The first person he told that he wanted to kill himself was back in the mid-nineties. This was something that had always been on his mind. But he couldn't go through with it while his mother was alive because it would have destroyed her. He put his affairs in order because he knew once his mother had gone he had permission to do it himself and he took it.

"I think the thing to take away from the exhibition is we were really lucky to have such a genius in our midst for that time and it's a shame that we lost him so young."

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty opens at the V&A next Saturday and runs until July 19.