Irish designer Neilli Mulcahy died earlier this month in Dublin, aged 87. The designer, who gained recognition in the Fifties and Sixties for her inventive use of Irish tweed, ran her own couture business in Dublin from 1951 through to 1970.
Born to a politically influential family in Ireland in 1925, Mulcahy studied at Dublin’s Grafton Academy of Dress Design and went on to study pattern cutting in Paris. She also worked in Paris for couturier Jacques Heim in the early Fifties, before establishing her own label in Dublin.
“She took current fashions from Paris and very much put an Irish twist on them, by using Irish fabrics,” said Alex Ward, curator of dress and textiles at Dublin’s National Museum of Ireland, which recently held a retrospective of Mulcahy’s work. “She would do dinner dresses in very light weight gossamer tweed, that she was having woven to order.”
Alongside having a strong client base in Ireland, Mulcahy’s designs attracted attention from the U.S. According to Ward, this was driven both by wealthy Americans visiting Ireland and having designs made at her studio, and fashion reporters visiting Dublin during their trips to Europe. In 1955, WWD described Mulcahy as “a name for buyers’ notebooks,” and praised the designer’s “way with tweeds.”
Mulcahy, who was a contemporary of Irish designers Sybil Connolly and Irene Gilbert, went on to show her collections during Irish designers’ tours of the U.S., and at department store shows in America. In 1959, her aunt Phyllis O’Kelly, the wife of the then Irish president Sean T. O’Kelly, wore Mulcahy’s designs on a visit to the U.S., and wore one antique crochet and green silkgown to a dinner at the White House. In 1963, Mulcahy set up a mail-order business to satisfy a growing demand for her wares outside Ireland. “She used to have fashion sketches done that she would send out with samples of tweeds for that particular year, and very detailed measurement charts,” said Ward. “I think she was possibly the only designer of that time, of that caliber, who was doing mail order.”
During her career, Mulcahy also designed tweed uniforms for Aer Lingus stewardesses, and later designed uniforms for staff at Ireland’s Allied Irish bank. But Mulcahy, who was married to lawyer Thomas Bacon and had seven daughters, eventually closed her business in 1970. “She did couture clothing, and I think by the end of the 1960s she could see the end of that,” said Ward.
Ireland’s export board had tried to persuade Mulcahy to produce her designs on a more mass level, Ward said, but the designer resisted. “She really didn’t want to go down that road at all — by that time she had six small daughters, and she felt the time was right to close her salon.
Mulcahy donated her archive to the National Museum of Ireland, who showed a retrospective of her work from 2007 through to 2011.