Founder Joanna Dai’s eight-year finance career in New York and London instilled a style of polished attitude and smart sensibility. Yet, when it came to workwear shopping, she felt increasingly discouraged by the market where effortless style, function, quality and value rarely coexisted. So she had the vision of a brand where none of these factors were compromised – a brand of performance wear that empowered the professional woman.
The Dai pieces are high-end yet life-proof fabrics for women in business. Each collection features the power of Sensitive Fabrics for all dresses and suiting, while the soft blouses feature skin-smooth technical jersey and silk.
Introduce yourself and tell us how you started the brand?
I found myself here after 8 years in investment banking in New York and London. I think the idea came to me on a work trip one time. I was getting dressed at 4:30am, caught the first flight out and after a day of meetings at 8pm I was still sitting on a plane back to London and at that moment, I thought how uncomfortable I felt in my clothes.
The waist span was tight, I could barely lift my arms in my blazer. I asked myself why this couldn’t feel like I was in yoga pants but still look like a tailored suit. So that was when the seed was planted in my head.
Six months later, the idea was still there and I ended up leaving banking to take a few months to really figure out my next move. I enrolled in London College of Fashion for two courses in design and pattern cutting. Pattern cutting is the basic element of tailoring and creating shape and fit. From there, I interned for three months with Emilia Wickstead, a luxury women’s wear designer in London which gave me a crash course in fashion and after that I went for it.
Did you go to university, if so what did you study?
I majored in electrical and computing engineering at Cornell University. I then went on to finance and banking in Wall Street. Five years after New York I moved to London to do three years in banking.
Were you ever interested in fashion before starting a career in banking?
I think I always had a good eye for design and aesthetics.When I was growing up, I used to always draw and paint. During the few months I had off, I got back into watercolors, paintings and had my first anonymous Instagram account of watercolors during my travels.From there, I transiting that into the design course, which was drawing a portfolio of work clothes.
So you’ve had 8 years of working in a finance career in New York. Tell us how the idea came about and what gave you the confidence to jump out of your career with JP Morgan to start your own business in October 2016?
I think I had been desiring to do something entrepreneurial as a consumer relatable product for some time leading up to the point of jumping out.
From a personal career standpoint, there was a point where I changed my mindset and I could see myself doing something else and it wasn’t pursuing this corporate banking career.
I was open to looking for ideas, so when I got the idea, I was already in the right mindset to jump. I wanted to pursue something entrepreneurial to get out of my comfort zone and I think any entrepreneur has to be extremely passionate about what it is they want to start and what their vision is and also a little naive too because the grass always looks greener on the other side. I can tell you now, from the other side that it is very difficult but I think if I was so pessimistic and doubtful at the time, then I would have never made the leap.
What skills do you think you’ve learnt in banking which you’ve applied to starting a business?
I think the eight years of banking and the training I had was absolutely instrumental in coming out into this world and embarking on this journey. The two skills specifically are negotiation (no matter which audience) and attention to detail.
I think I have been really good at budgeting and I have developed a general sense of conservatism when it comes to managing finances and forecasting.
Maybe almost to a fault because when I launched I thought to myself, ‘even if I could sell one a week going to two a week’ and clearly, I have managed to outperformed that massively.
What was your first move in starting the business?
There was one freelancer who was a pattern cutter, production manager and developer of garment technology, she did everything! And so I brought Emilia on from day one and we have been working together ever since. She has been critical to everything that you see.
Emilia had a lot of manufacturing relationships in Europe through her thirty years of experience. So that was the first step to making our first collection. The first collection was only eight pieces and we only had two colorways each so sixteen total products to begin with.
Now we have 18 pieces with over 40 products. I started with her and I made the website on a budget doing my own designs. When we launched, we didn’t launch with inventory, we launched with pre-orders. Using my network, I did a trunk show in New York and in London. The real test was if people would place a pre-order or not. It turned out that beyond the friends who felt they had to place an order, I had friends who placed up to five items that they liked out of eight so that spoke to me a lot and made me think I actually had something here.
The benefits of launching pre-orders were that I didn’t have wasted stock if no one pre-ordered and having data on the sizing and colorways from the preorders really helped before production. It’s a cash-intensive business so having cash flow come in for the production up front was really important.
With fashion being the second largest polluter in the world, how does your brand ensure sustainability and less wastage?
Pre-ordering gives a sense of demand before going forward and making something. A lot of factories will require minimums for the number of units per style in order for them to make the garments. I found relationships in suppliers who were willing to make our small quantities, such as family owned and very small manufacturing sites.
Although the costs of productions could have been higher, they were able to support the supply that we wanted to provide. Beyond that, we were always in the position of demand outstripping supply.
The accurate demand prediction meant we weren’t sitting on inventory for months, which may become dead stock or massively discounted. This undercuts your whole brand and increases wastage so for me this was not an option.
Tell us how you decided what target consumer you wanted to go for? High end vs high street?
I think I went for a consumer that was myself or a similar version. Demographically, it is the older millennial who probably has a busy lifestyle with work, goes to fitness classes, loves travel, loves experiences, trying new restaurants, probably doesn’t own a car and Ubers to places.
Price point wise, I started going around high street shops and looking at what they had to offer but didn’t find the clothes were particularly comfortable. I think the designers who were making the clothes had never experienced the life of a corporate woman. Someone who has a day full of meetings, rushing on the tube, lunch with clients or dinner with colleagues.
They have not thought about any of this, but have decided to cut out pockets and add a lining which is extremely uncomfortable and scratchy against your skin. I always wanted that polished and beautiful look and two of the brands that I would have died to own dresses of were Roland Mouret and Victoria Beckham. They looked really clean, tailored and well put together, but at £1500 it is something you would wear to an event such as a wedding and not every other week in the office.
I wanted to bridge that gap as well. When I interned with Emilia Wickstead, I saw the pricing architecture of the luxury women’s wear category, the raw materials and the production costs. If I’d sold it to the end customer or if they sold it to a wholesaler there is a direct to consumer market to have that quality but at a much more affordable price point. So that was the price point that I wanted to go for, bringing high end products with the pricing of a high street brand.
You designed the pieces yourself. Where do you get inspiration and creative experience from?
I’m very minimal. When I first put together my mood board, I was fascinated by references of just minimal; maybe a line or a corner of a building with maybe the sky behind it.
I took a lot of inspirations from clean lines, geometry and angles, putting all of these together to create flattering style lines on the designs and sketches. On some of the designs you will find in a geometric way an hourglass that still makes a flattering shape on the body. There is this constant angled pocket that comes at a flattering angle for your hips.
I love inverted pleats so you see that as a recurring theme in some of the skirts, dresses and tops. Finally, in terms of functions, pockets were always a big thing for me. Our shirts, blouse and blazer have this foldable cuff function so you either have a full-length cuff or if you fold it up you can show your watch or bracelet.
The online fashion space is becoming so competitive now with all these influencers having their own brands. Where do you sit against your competitors and how do you think you’ll bring something different to the table?
I think we have a very unique differentiator which is our fabrics. It is something that is it very rarely accessible on the market. Its performance of innovative textiles is made into this beautiful British tailoring and craftsmanship.
Being digitally native as a brand, I think plays to our favor at this stage. You see and read about the industry right now being a bit of a struggle with brick and mortar stores being very expensive because of the overheads for companies and signing into very long leases.
We have the flexibility of testing pop up concepts, testing with different audiences and trunk shows. From all the data, we can make an informed decision if we do commit to a future brick and mortar position, where that will be what is the most optimal and even the experience of it of what we are offering to hear with our showroom now is a comprehensive solution.
With regards to influencers, we look across to an authentic sharing of the vision of what we view as our brand and not just lots of influencers who just want fees. We want someone who really loves and embraces the brand. If at the end of it they really love that one blouse let’s say, then I am happy to gift it to them because I know they are going to get good wear and a lifetime value out of it.
Is social media the way forward? Have you used many influencers and fashion bloggers?
I think that we are constantly reviewing and evolving our strategy. We work with employers that are so far on an ad hoc basis and just really organically having an engagement with one that we really like or that they love what we are doing. It then becomes a natural dialogue.
For example, I recently worked with Michelle Tyler who is an ethical, sustainable fashion influencer. She is over 40 and has children and carries this sort of lifestyle that is really aligned to what we are trying to build with our sustainable commitments.
When I went out to New York recently, I invited her to come and see the new collection. That is the first time we met each other, we had a great discussion and had a lot of commonalities and it became a really organic way to work together and you can sense that. So I think those are the types of influences/collaborations I would pursue for the future, the ones that come from an organic place.
I do think a lot of big brands are out there scanning for influencers and just pay them fees for the reach that they have, but you can sense that it is not authentic.
How did you initially fund the business?
I initially funded the business through my personal savings. My initial investment went into my coursework at London College of Fashion, the initial sampling and prototyping, the first trips to Premiére Vision in Paris (which is the world’s largest textile exhibition), and bootstrapping the website, branding and first photoshoots.
For the first samples that I used in the first trunkshows, I created size sets so every single size from UK 6 to 14 in our trousers, blazers and a dress. Samples are really expensive to do because you are paying for each one at an hourly rate. But I thought this was really critical to the earliest women knowing their fit and sizing in Dai before ordering.
So far, you’ve only relied on freelancers to help you. A pattern cutter, web developer, a stylist and brand consultant, and a part-time intern? Are you planning on hiring permanent staff at all?
Yeah, it is definitely the plan. It has grown to the point where I cannot have this much of my day focused on the operational and admin side of things and decisions that don’t need to be bottlenecked at myself.
One of the challenges of many start-ups is the low budget for hiring the talent that you want. What we would look for in a permanent hire would be someone who believes in the brand and mission.
You read a lot into companies and culture and I think that first employee makes that culture real. I think I am looking for someone who is driven and has strong attention to detail. I was reading about looking to hire someone who is bright to someone who is smart because someone who is bright would mean that they might be enthusiastic and willing to take more risks and think outside of the box.
What do you think you still need to learn in order to take your business where you want it to be?
I need to learn so much. It is kind of like a video game where the progressive leveling keeps giving challenges. I’m currently thinking of external funding and all the various options that there are. I have to think about what venture capitalists might think and the VC terms and the dynamics in terms of that world.
I always want to be thinking ahead, especially financially. With that, it brings lots of learning curves again. Since we launched, it has been a full time one man show consisting of me making the shots and I’d like to expand to a team of say 3 or 5. So, permanently having a team of those people around will be a learning curve for me.
It takes a certain level of focus, resilience and character in each individual to want to make their mark on the world. What do you think taught you to be this way and what childhood influences have contributed to this?
I was always an athlete. Back in 5th grade, I ran for student government and in elementary school, I ran for Vice President of Publicity and in junior high, I ran for Vice President. In high school, I was the secretary and from then I was constantly challenging myself. At University, I was the class president for the class of 2008 at Cornell’s.
So, I think that would be my link to being entrepreneurial as I always enjoyed having that leadership. My dad ended up being an entrepreneur, he was always a mechanical engineer working for large companies and being very technical.
Eventually, after moving to the states, he started his own company with a partner and they do mechanical importing and exporting with US and international customers with parts made in China. So, I got to see him do that and I think it is a very different journey because I don’t think it has influenced me so much as he has taken a slower journey. It is not like now I have been brought up in this millennial thinking and seeing all these consumer brands and with social media and the digital age I have a very different vision for the path of my company but it was great to see him and that allowed him to have more financial freedom but it also came with the financial stress.
How has a failure set you up for later success?
My most memorable failure was when I was class president at Cornell’s. There was no class president for freshman year so I won at the end of freshman year for sophomore year and I won the election for junior year and re-ran to be president for senior year so that I could make the commencement.
My Vice President was running up against me and things got pretty competitive. In order to make sure I win, I had this idea of putting my campaign with car window paint on my friend’s cars.
I remember writing on the campaign “dai or die” on all my friend’s car windows. The opponent who ran against me took the entire campaign rule book and found different reasons to disqualify me including going over budget because I paid for rental cars, parking (the rental cars were illegally parked). The reasons were so petty but the judge panel decided to disqualify me even though I won by vote.I was crushed for about a month but then I got over it.
“My mum told me that there will be even bigger failures in your life and that this was the most inconsequential thing that could happen to me at this age so I had to just learn from this”.
What brings you real joy at the minute? Like, real unadulterated happiness?
Now I am 32 so whenever I can find the moment, trips or the times where I can catch up with really good friends or family makes me treasure those moments more than anything else.
You don’t know when you are next going to be in the same city or having this amazing conversation at dinner or having a drink with these people and being all together. Those moments make me happy.
What kind of apps or tools do you use to organize your life?
I think Trello is a very good app. What has helped a lot with work is the customer service is Zendesk. When we had the times article and we had 200 pairs of trousers to produce to prefill pre-orders, the number of customers coming in, a Gmail box couldn’t manage it. The way Zendesk is organized is brilliant and they have very affordable small packages for one-person customer service teams which at the present is me.
If you see someone sign off on our customer service it is probably me but then I escalate to myself when something problematic comes up.
If you had to gift one book to someone, what would it be?
For all the aspiring entrepreneurs, I recommend The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
It taught me about building the minimum viable product and iterating based on feedback.
Putting that product out into the market and iterating that feedback into the loop so you are constantly improving, rather than waiting until you think you got that exact perfect visionary product which might take forever and costs a lot more in the runway leading up to that to only find out that there is something fundamentally flawed with it.
I took this concept and applied it at the very early stages of starting out. I think that was really valuable for me as someone who is self-funded and bootstrapping.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
It describes the clothes but also the women and I think it is so well defined and captures the brand.
This would be a reminder of all the women out there who are dynamic; balancing every single thing in their life and needing the clothes that get them there and help them perform and do so.
20 AUGUST, 2018