Meet Joanna Dai, the Entrepreneur Designing “Feels-Like-Yoga” Power Suits for Women Who Mean Business
In 2016 she swapped in the corporate boardroom for the creative atelier. The conventional office might be crumbling, but banker-turned-entrepreneur Joanna Dai is on a mission to empower working women through their wardrobes, one high-performance garment at a time.
10 September, 2020
Joanna Dai's path to fashion design isn't so ordinary. She didn't spend her late teens cobbling together an off-the-wall graduate collection or burning the midnight oil as a seamstress at a Parisian fashion house. Instead, she dived headfirst into the world of finance, working her way up the corporate ladder, from analyst to Vice President at J.P. Morgan.
She'd known since the first summer she spent interning at a bank in New York that the working woman's wardrobe - for the most part scratchy, crinkly and exhaustively uncomfortable - was a huge barrier to professional advancement. And so, in 2016, she left the corporate world behind and enrolled on a womenswear course at London College of Fashion with the aim of making "feels-like-yoga" workwear that was as faultlessly stylish as it was versatile.
After a brief internship at Emilia Wickstead, Joanna launched Dai in 2017. Quickly, it gained traction, with on-the-go women in metropolises across the world hankering for a pair of Dai's now legendary trousers. Over the past few years, the collection's grown from a small capsule collection to a lifestyle brand with eco-friendly fabrics and principles at its core.
Here, Joanna shares her expert insight into launching a business, packing for a trip, where SUITCASE readers must visit in London and New York, and the future of workwear in a world of Zoom-mediated office drinks and non-stop WFH.
Since founding Dai, what has been your proudest achievement?
We're three years in and I still think our trajectory forever changed two months after our soft launch when The Times published a full feature article called "I Found the Perfect Trousers". We sold out before I woke up, it nearly crashed our site which I was debugging myself, and I was fielding volumes of customer service requests the entire weekend as the only full-time employee. Looking back, it was incredibly validating to witness my vision of "feels-like-yoga-but-looks-like-a-power-suit" get endorsed so readily by thousands of real women.
Our work routines have been hugely disrupted in 2020. How do you see the future of the professional working woman's wardrobe?
The working woman's wardrobe will have to be that much more versatile and the concept of a capsule wardrobe will be more relevant than ever. Our designs will need to take her from the office office to her home office to her commute to the school run to evening events to weekend occasions and more. Equally, sustainability will become increasingly important. I think we all realised during lockdown that we value quality over quantity, and at Dai we're always pushing boundaries when it comes to sustainability and the circular economy.
Can you remember the worst item of workwear you've ever owned?
Where to begin? Probably the first ever suit I wore for my summer banking internship in New York City. It was made of this non-stretchy wool that wrinkled within minutes of putting it on and was unbearable in the NYC summer humidity. I didn't feel confident or like myself. While I've tried to curate a working wardrobe that reflects my personal style, I still feel like high-performing fabrics are lacking in the market. So, 13 years after my first suit memory, here we are with Dai.
Which destinations have inspired your work the most?
In terms of style and attitude, New York. The city and the people are fast-paced, modern and ambitious. In terms of comfort, SoCal. I grew up in Orange County, California and always appreciated the effortless ease that came with the sunny beach lifestyle. In terms of design aesthetic, it's a blend of London's Savile Row tailoring, Scandinavian minimalism and Parisian timelessness.
Where would you say SUITCASE readers must visit when in New York?
Start in Tribeca for brunch, walk west towards the Hudson River until you hit the shops and restaurants spilling out of Tribeca's old warehouses. Stroll up the Hudson River Parkway, duck out on any street in West Village and get lost exploring the little shops, cafés and restaurants. Finish for a drink and shopping in Meatpacking District. Oh, how I miss pre-lockdown New York!
Where are your favourite spots in London to decompress after a long day of work?
Running is my jam. You'll probably find me running along the River Thames, through St James' Park and Green Park, along Regent's Canal or doing laps around Victoria Park. We're based in East London and I love our local watering holes in Shoreditch, such as The Buxton and The Culpeper.
Any hacks when packing for a work trip?
This is my bread and butter. I usually wear our wide-leg, elasticated waistband Collateral Pant for the flight because they feel like pyjamas but are chic and ready to roll off the plane and into any meeting. I love our Trail Blazer as my in-flight layer; it's also meeting-ready and the passport/ smartphone inside-breast pockets are a bonus for conveniently passing through all the airport points. It folds up wrinkle-free in your suitcase too. If you wear your work clothes in-transit, you create so much room in your carry-on luggage for fun after-hours pieces, a change of shoes or your gym kit.
What advice would you give to women keen to launch their own enterprises but unsure where to begin?
If you're really passionate about an idea - so much so that it keeps you up at night - you should seriously consider at least the first steps in pursuing it. Do more research, start networking and speaking to experts in the space, and do the work before you invest money into it. The rollercoaster is real. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side and it is really hard work in ways you cannot even imagine. The moments on the edge of failure are real and terrifying, and you will feel like you want to quit. So before you begin, you have to identify your purpose, your true "why?", and this needs to be unwavering and strong enough because that's the grit that will carry you through the toughest moments.
Where do you see Dai 10 years from now?
We believe the world is better when women succeed and our vision is to deliver comfort-empowered performance. In 10 years' time, Dai will be a global go-to brand of performance wear leading the way in innovation and sustainability across categories that empower comfort and performance for women who mean business.
Can you share three things that you're obsessed with right now?
The Daily podcast from The New York Times is a great 30-minute feed of what you need to know with lots of credible experts and quality reporting. I've been cooking a lot more during lockdown, particularly recipes from my talented friend Yasmin Fahr's cookbook, Keeping It Simple, which launched just before lockdown. It's great for delicious 30-minute meals, many of which are one-pot with a handful of ingredients. On the culinary theme, I'm also obsessed with negroni sbagliato, a cocktail made from Campari, sweet vermouth, prosecco and ice. Add an orange peel too, if you're feeling fancy.
And finally, what's in your SUITCASE?
I'm always plugged in to work, so my laptop along with a tangle of chargers. I usually throw in a few bikinis, my running kit, white Birkenstocks, my Sarah Haran leather camera bag - which is small but deceptively roomy - and a couple of books. I'm currently reading Educated by Tara Westover and Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan. It goes without saying that I always have my Dai Explorer face mask and a locked-and-loaded squirty hand sanitiser ready to go.