Neillí Mulcahy was one of Ireland’s leading fashion designers during the 1950s and 1960s, and a founder member of the Irish Haute Couture Group in 1962, along with Irene Gilbert, Ib Jorgensen and Clodagh (Phipps).
Neillí was born in Dublin in 1925 and educated at the Loreto Convent on St Stephen’s Green. Her father, General Richard Mulcahy, was a prominent figure in the War of Independence and the foundation of the State. A course in Institutional Management introduced her to dressmaking and garment care, following which she trained at the Grafton Academy of Dress Design.
Her early career included teaching pattern cutting at the Academy and managing the Junior Miss range in a Dublin clothing factory. In 1951 Neillí spent six months working in the Paris atelier of Jacques Heim gaining valuable experience in the world of French haute couture.
In October 1951 Neillí opened her own salon at No. 30 South Frederick Street, Dublin, initially specialising in evening dresses and wedding trousseaux. In 1955 she staged her first fashion show in Lissenfield, her parent’s home in Rathmines. The show received positive coverage in the press and a number of reviews mentioned her inclusion of casual sporty clothes as well as her flair with tweed.
Neillí’s imaginative use of Irish tweeds was a key feature of her work and she collaborated with weavers to produce fabrics in a wide variety of weights, weaves and colours. She innovated with her use of fabrics knit from tweed yarns to complement the tweeds. She also worked closely with textile designer Michael McInerney and together they produced hand printed báiníns, poplins, linens and printed knitfabrics.
In 1962 Neillí designed a new couture uniform for Aer Lingus' air hostesses. Made of hand woven Donegal Tweed, it was just one of a number of uniform commissions she undertook over the years.
One of the strongest markets for Irish fashion at this time was the United States, and Neillí’s designs, inspired by the Irish landscape and her love of Irish fabrics, were well received. Many of her overseas clients were American visitors to Ireland and in addition to her transatlantic promotional trips, she established a mail order business to cater for them.
Reviews of her annual collection frequently mentioned Neillí’s status as a working mother. By the time she closed the salon in 1969 she had six young daughters, Anne, Máire, Helen, Orna, Catherine, and Karin. Her seventh daughter, Sarah arrived in 1974.