As we continue on our never-ending journey of celebrating female confidence, this month we met up with Joanna Dai, founder of womenswear fashion label, Dai.
During her eight-year finance career in New York & London as an investment banker, Joanna became increasingly discouraged by the workwear clothing market - finding that function, quality, comfort and style rarely coexisted. This was where the vision of her brand came to light; she wanted to create a brand where none of these factors were compromised; performance wear that empowered the professional woman. Not long after her eureka moment, Joanna called quits on her finance career and the Dai brand was born...
You were brought up in California before moving to New York where you had a successful career in finance. What brought on the change of moving to London and starting a clothing brand?
I moved to London five years into my finance career because I never had the chance to study abroad in Europe during university and really wanted to experience living here, and London felt like the perfect city for both finance and obviously being English speaking. Eight years into my investment banking career, I felt the urge to do something more entrepreneurial and creative, to build something that had a tangible positive impact. I always loved looking smart and tailored and found workwear to be mostly uncomfortable with waistbands digging in and restrictive fabrics. I had the unique insight into a huge demographic of professional women who worked long hours, travelled frequently, or were always on the move because I was her for eight years, and I felt the designers and high street brands were not designing clothes that performed at our speed.
During your time as an investment banker in the corporate world, I can imagine there would have been a few situations where your confidence was knocked in the workplace. What learnings did you take from this when starting your own brand?
I actually think starting my own business where my confidence went to a whole new level. Yes, my role in banking was incredibly challenging and the calibre of talent and intelligence around me was just unparalleled. I was forced outside my comfort zone everyday, had to speak publicly in front of large audiences and navigate real-time financing executions with very senior bankers and clients 24/7. That was great training before becoming a founder. But when you’re a global Tier 1 investment bank, everyone picks up your call and you already have the top market share in your business function. When I became an unknown startup brand, every single new relationship was built up from scratch with the most earnest nothing-to-lose pitch and a lot of rejections.
Tell us about how Dai began? What was your 'light-bulb' moment that gave you the motivation to create the brand, in spite of a huge selection of womenswear brands already on the market?
I saw a huge gap in the market where women’s workwear was made from traditional fabrics that were restrictive and high maintenance, and basically no options that offered performance, comfort, function, and style. My eureka moment came I was on a same-day work trip to Stockholm, one that I got dressed for at 4:30am and was on the last return flight 16 hours later after a day of meetings. The waistband was digging in, I couldn’t move my arms, and I wished I were I my yoga leggings. I thought to myself, “could workwear feel like yoga and still look like a power suit?” It was 2016 and athleisure had totally boomed, so with all these technical fabrics readily available on the market, it was obvious to me that there was an opportunity to innovate and revolutionise workwear with fabrics that were 4-way stretch, breathable, wrinkle resistant and machine washable. I envisioned the brand as one that empowered women, and I went for it.
You have been running a series of pop ups between New York and London for the past year now. How would you say this face to face interaction has helped your brand grow compared to online?
Our fabrics are our USP, and we are selling tailored, fitted womenswear at the end of the day. So for our customers to touch, feel and try on in person is incredibly important as fit is hands-down the most important for women who come in so many shapes and sizes. So while we do our best to perfect our online journey with our customers, our face-to-face interaction creates a stronger first experience and relationship with our customers. Gaining brand visibility in areas like London’s Marylebone and Spitalfields and NYC’s SoHo is also an important factor for us rather than relying solely on one channel such as social media.
Social media plays a bigger part than ever for retail businesses right now. Its lovely to see another female founder being the face of her brand! How has this helped you engage with your customers?
When I launched, I never saw myself as the face of my brand or realised that was happening. I thought I was solving a problem and creating a productthat made women’s lives easier, but it wasn’t until later on that more and more people pointed out the power of my founder story. I’ve learned that a lot of women do resonate with my journey, and I hope to use my journey as an example to inspire other women to feel more empowered and confident.
Your brand message is very much about comfort empowering confidence. What does confidence mean to you?
Great question. To be confident means to do something that scares yourself and takes you outside of your comfort zone. You have something bigger than your current self to achieve or fulfil. Your confidence enables you to take the act of courage and leap of faith in that moment. In the context of Dai, I believe comfort empowers confidence. To feel fully comfortable in your skin, in your outfit, in your personal image, is to remove the self-conscious or self-doubt hurdles in your mindset that could be holding you back when you need your performance the most.
What would you say being a female entrepreneur starting her own brand has taught you about confidence?
When I was building up the brand from nothing – no brand recognition, no press, no customers, unknown founder, very few Instagram followers – every single action I took back then was with nothing to lose. The number of rejections far outweighed acceptances, but every opportunity given to me was so valuable in laying the foundations of this brand and gave me a little more confidence to advance a little further each time. After nearly three years since launching Dai, I feel like being confident, authentic and speaking my truth opens a whole new level of outcomes that I couldn’t predict. I’ve been interviewed by many high profile publications, TV networks and people, met and have gotten to know widely respected female role models, am advised by experienced industry veterans, have an impressive and loyal customer following, and we’re on a very exciting company trajectory. It didn’t happen overnight, and each advancement gave me more confidence.
In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, many of us had to rethink our business model overnight to survive. How did you manage this sudden change, and what effects has the crisis had on your business – both positively and negatively?
It’s very clear that Dai customers are professional women who wear our styles to go out of the home, to work and to feel empowered. So Covid-19 has impacted our core business. But despite this, we’ve had some of our best customer engagement through our actions and our commitment to doing what we feel is right intime of crisis. We donated £18,000 worth of bestselling trousers to women of the NHS and have had an outpour of support from our customers and from the NHS essential workers. We launched Masks for Heroes the day after our government advised face coverings in public with donations of masks and from sales to the NHS and other charities. Our masks feature a performance lining that is 99% antibacterial, and we’ve seen such a great response from Dai customers and businesses preparing for employees to return to work.
Are there any areas where you hope to grow/expand Dai? What can we expect to see next?
We’re redefining workwear. We see the need for clothes that function at the intersection of work and leisure more than ever. We believe that our customers’ awareness of sustainability and conscious consumption is more acute than ever. And it’s more important than ever to design capsule pieces that are versatile, trans-seasonal, and timeless, not to mention all those aspects of performance, comfort and sustainability that are ingrained in our brand DNA.
Besides running a highly successful clothing brand, what gives you the most joy in life outside of work?
Spending time with my family and friends, and taking care of myself mentally and physically. I go running 3-4 times a week at 5 to 18 mile distances each run. I really try to switch off on weekends. I also find cooking quite a creative and destressing process, and love traveling.
What advice might you give women looking to move from a ‘corporate’ career to follow their dreams?
If you’re really passionate about an idea and it keeps you up at night, do it. Yes, do more research and do the work before you invest money into it. Naivety is bliss in terms of seeing a problem differently or not coming from the given industry. But it’s a rollercoaster and it’s really hard work, and the moments on the edge of failure are real. Your unwavering purpose and true why need to be strong enough because that’s your source of raw grit that will carry you through the toughest moments.
If we looked inside your handbag, what unusual item might we find at the bottom?
In my Sarah Haran Marie Camera Bag which is designed to be so functional and organised, you’ll only find the usual: ID, credit cards, iPhone, sunglasses. In the bottomless tote bag I use for travel, there will be random old boarding cards, branded pencils and pens from buildings I’ve visited, old conference passes, a few variations of contact lens cases, a few business and restaurant cards, and a car USB charger.
How has your Sarah Haran bag helped you feel more organised?
As above, genius! So functional and organised, there’s no reason for the inside of your bag to be a mess. It’s like Sarah Haran is the Marie Kondo of bags, and it inspires you to be tidy and uncluttered as anything but is just a disservice to the incredibly clever design.
We have teamed up with Dai to launch our washable and reversible face-masks. 25% of each sale goes to the NHS heroes. Get yours now by following this link here.