Daughter of General Richard Mulcahy, she was one of Ireland's leading fashion designers, by Constance Harris
Neilli Mulcahy, one of Ireland's leading fashion designers of the 20th Century, died earlier this week, aged 87. A quiet innovator, she was involved to the last in the industry she had loved so much.
Born in 1925, she was the daughter of General Richard Mulcahy, former Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Army. She grew up in Lissenfield in Rathmines, Dublin.
Neilli studied science initially but after her first year dropped the subject and went on to attend the Grafton Academy to study fashion. It was to be a relationship that would be with her for her whole life: she met with the students every year to judge their garments as part of their final, graduation collection, assessment, offering them constructive criticism as her gimlet, haute couture-trained eye, assessed finish, which she knew could make or break a designer.
Upon graduation from the Grafton Academy, Neilli studied haute couture for six months in Paris with Jacques Heim. This was to be a deciding influence as Neilli's career was mainly as a couturier.
In October 1952, Neilli opened her own atelier in 30 South Frederick Street, Dublin, where she also worked and collaborated with friend and milliner, Elizabeth Fanagan.
In 1953, the hugely important, artistically discerning, international designer Elsa Schiaparelli singled Neilli out for an award when she was a visiting judge at the National Agricultural and Industrial Development Association show (NAIDA). In 1955, Neilli presented her first solo show in Lissenfield and garnered much acclaim, especially for her bold use of colour. Green was an especially favourite colour of hers.
Neilli, like many Irish designers, often travelled to America to make sales.
She became well known to the media there. However, in 1959, when president Sean T O'Kelly visited the US, his wife (Neilli's aunt) wore all Neilli Mulcahy. Neilli became a name whose career was then followed and was often mentioned in the prestigious, Women's Wear Daily publication.
In 1962, she was one of the co-founders, along with Irene Gilbert and IB Jorgensen, of the Irish Haute Couture Group.
Irish fashion in the Fifties and Sixties depended on a play with traditional Irish heritage and materials, which was a very successful marketing strategy for the US, UK and Germany, but could be a source of criticism at home.
However, Neilli Mulcahy had a distinctive, clean, modern, aesthetic that managed to walk the fine line of pleasing both the export market and home.
She was well known for her stance on women needing pockets in their garments, a radical position when one thinks of the pervading slavishness to silhouette of that era. But Neilli designed with function as a priority, as well as beauty. She was a practical woman. She was innovative not only with cut and interpretation, but in her use of tweed (favouring Magee, McNutt, Malloy and Avoca) and in her customisation of fabrics creating collections that were wholly unique and striking. She used Irish tweed in her collection for Aer Lingus staff uniforms in 1963.
In 1970, after 18 years, Neilli quit fashion to raise her family. She had seven daughters from her marriage to Dublin solicitor Tommy Bacon. But Neilli didn't quit the industry. She continued to consult and have a relationship with the Grafton Academy.
In 2011, the National Museum of Ireland held a retrospective of Neilli's work, spanning her career from 1951 to 1969.
Neilli Mulcahy was never one to blow her own trumpet, unlike her contemporary Sybil Connolly, nor was she bitter, as can so often happen to people who work in this notoriously tough industry. She was always modest, unassuming and enthusiastic.
Neilli believed in work and she believed in fashion.