Struck by how stiff and uncomfortable she often felt in the clothes she wore to work, Joanna Dai left her investment-banking position at JP Morgan in London in 2016 with the idea of creating tailored, office-friendly workwear that would allow women to move just as comfortably as they would in sportswear. She enrolled on a short intensive design course at the London College of Fashion, followed by a short intensive course in patternmaking. “I needed to understand how to do everything so that I was able to ask my pattern cutter, ‘Can the collar be this way?’” Dai explains. Next, she interned with designer Emilia Wickstead, who had made her wedding dress, to gain a better understanding of wholesale, retailing, finance and production.
Her online store Dai launched in 2017 with an autumn/winter capsule collection of elegantly tailored but stretchy and comfortable trousers, jackets, cuffed blouses and dresses. At first, she focused on pre-orders so that she could assess demand and preferred sizes. “My personal preference was for dresses, but it was a suit – Trail Blazer jacket (£395), Power Move trousers (£190) and a Now and Forever blouse (from £145) – that was by far the most popular.”
Initial success led to a move from Bermondsey to a snug Whitechapel office that features rails of Dai’s newest designs – mix-and-match separates in neutral colours like navy and cream. Her first spring/summer collection includes cropped trousers (from £155), sleeveless, fitted shift dresses (from £175) and a fetching cream blazer (£395). “I use mainly performance fabrics, but also silk because it’s breathable,” she says. One fabric she sourced from an Italian company, Eurojersey, was chosen because of its easy-to-wear properties such as wrinkle resistance, as well as for its eco credentials. Indeed, environmental sustainability and transparency about labour sourcing are values that Dai holds dear.
Freedom of movement is also conveyed through the site’s imagery, which shows models moving and jumping, legs outstretched. “On my first shoot I styled the model to turn and twist,” she says, adding that for this it was an iconic 1950s image of Carmen Dell’Orefice, by Richard Avedon, that sparked her imagination. Even the site’s blog is entitled Dai’alogue, with an emphasis on the active.