A View from the Top: Joanna Dai, the ex-banker determined to make professional womenswear comfortable

As a banker, she could cope with the gruelling hours and tedious tasks. The waistband of her trousers after 20 hours of travelling though? That was another issue

Josie Co
Business Editor
Thursday 29 March 2018 15:15
Dai, a former banker, launched her business in October 2016. Her first collection debuted in July last year
Dai, a former banker, launched her business in October 2016. Her first collection debuted in July last year

It’s often said that if you want to launch a successful business, there’s nothing more important than knowing your audience.

Joanna Dai arguably couldn’t have known her audience any better when she launched a high-end fashion brand for professional women back in October 2016. That’s because she was her audience.

The California native’s resume makes for impressive reading. A graduate of New York’s Ivy League Cornell University, she joined now-defunct investment bank Bear Stearns as a summer analyst just before the financial crisis. That led to a full-time job at Wall Street giant JP Morgan in the summer of 2008 and her CV over the following years is peppered with imposing-looking jargon.

Credit default valuations were the focus of her first role at the banking powerhouse, before she moved into interest rate risk management. In May 2013 she relocated to London to be with her now husband, but she stayed with JP Morgan, selling corporate bonds to investors on behalf of some of the world’s biggest firms.

Forging a career as a junior banker, while maintaining some semblance of a social life is no walk in the park, even for the feistiest youngster: the hours are gruelling, the tasks tedious and the gender balance still too often embarrassing. But Dai seemed to master all of that with aplomb. The waistband of her trousers after 20 hours of travelling though? That was another issue. And one that the budding entrepreneur was not prepared to tolerate.

“I was sitting on a plane late at night flying back from Stockholm after a day of meetings,” she tells me over a lunch of ramen and edamame in west London. “Don’t get me wrong, I was proud of what I’d achieved that day, but I couldn’t help thinking that I was uncomfortable in what I was wearing and that there must be a way of fixing that.”

The genesis of the idea for Dai – the company that shares her surname – was actually hatched a few months earlier when she was on holiday with her family in Austria, but that uncomfortable flight gave her the final push. In early 2016 – taking a massive leap of faith – she quit her day job and enrolled in an intensive two-week course in womenswear pattern-cutting at the London College in Fashion. She then bagged herself an internship with Emilia Wickstead – the London-based, New Zealand-born fashion designer whose star-studded client list includes Samantha Cameron and the Duchess of Cambridge – before breaking out on her own. Her first collection debuted in July last year.

Impressively, considering the way she talks about her company and her ambitions, Dai is very much still a one-woman-band. Dai the retailer sells dresses, jackets, tops and trousers via a perfectly-manicured website, but Dai the businesswoman has so far only relied on freelancers to help her: a pattern cutter and a web developer, a stylist and brand consultant, and a part-time intern. Hiring full-time staff, she says, is inevitably going to have to be on the cards at some point, especially considering the pace of demand, but so far keeping costs to a minimum has proved a strategy for success.

With blouses starting at £145, her outfits don’t exactly suit everyone’s budget, but she seems to have struck a chord with women who bear a resemblance to herself and to the banker she used to be.

“We’re designed to convey everything behind a high-performance, high-achieving, fast-paced professional woman, who is versatile and dynamic,” she explains.

She tells me about the values behind the marque – transparency, sustainability and innovation – and explains that women, like investors from her old stomping ground, are increasingly basing their decision of how to spend their money on what an individual product stands for: it’s ethos rather than just aesthetics.

Her supplier in Italy uses technology in its mills that’s designed to minimise waste and save energy, for example. And she’s teamed up with a company called Positive Luxury that certifies manufacturers for their commitment to social and environmental sustainability.

Dai is not the first label to tap into the trend of wanting to empower professional women through their wardrobes. Long gone are the days of pencil skirts and frumpy twinsets. French label Comptoir des Cotonniers, for example, has mastered the art of creating feminine, elegant but office-fit pieces that feel luxurious but not flouncy; sporty but still smart. Reiss and H&M-owned Cos are just two others. But Dai says that she doesn’t perceive the market to be saturated here in the UK, and also thinks that her company brings something different to the table.

“I think our unique selling point is the fabric,” she says. She explains that some brands prioritise comfort over style or vice versa. The fabric Dai uses is called “microfiber jersey”. It helps items look tailored but also makes them versatile, easy to take care of and – perhaps most importantly for those late-night business flights from Sweden – comfortable.

Although Dai has clearly got some way to go before her surname graces malls and high streets in quite the same way as some of her role models’ and rivals’, she’s definitely starting to get noticed.

Her creations have had glowing reviews in the national and international media. The Times recently profiled her as “the banker who created a suit that’s as comfortable as your yoga kit”. But when I ask her what she’s most proud of, she’s coy.

“It’s the handful of customers who keep coming back to buy a third or fourth item from Dai,” she explains. “Loyalty is the best endorsement of what I’m doing.”

For the future she’s got big plans. Although taking time out to start a family isn’t totally off the cards, she’s passionate about growing her business. She wants to enhance brand recognition while staying true to what Dai stands for but her ambition is also to make an impact. She explains that she’d love to be able to donate a portion of profits to organisations and charities that empower women.

And is there anything she misses about her former banking life? She stops to think.

“Sometimes I miss the fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled environment,” she says. “I’m quite analytical and technical and I don’t have as much opportunity now to apply those skills in the same way”.

After a further pause she adds: “And the amenities of working in a huge corporate building are nice too.”

Her first studio space in Bermondsey, south London, she recalls, was so basic that she had to bring her own toilet paper. “That can be a little bit rough”.

As we pay the bill and finish the last edamame beans, I ask her what her one piece of advice would be to anyone considering an entrepreneurial career change as drastic as the one she’s mastered.

“I’d say, go for it,” she says, “but also know that you simply don’t know what you don’t know,” she laughs.

“You can never anticipate all the challenges and risks. It’s not easy, but as long as you stay focused on your goal and ambition, it’s likely to all be worth it.”

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