Jazz Shaper: Joanna Dai

Posted on 16 October 2021

Joanna Dai is the founder and CEO of innovative womenswear brand, Dai.

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Elliot Moss

Good morning and welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss.  Jazz Shapers is the place where the shapers of business come together with the shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues and my guest today I am very pleased to say is Founder and CEO at innovative women’s wear brand Dai, it is Joanna Dai herself.  Eight years into her investment banking career on a return flight during a typical sixteen hour work day, Joanna had an ‘ah ah’ moment.  As she says, “My waistband was digging in, nothing stretched, I was uncomfortable.  I wished I was in my yoga kit.  I thought to myself, could these clothes feel like yoga and still look like a power suit.”  Joanna took a leap of faith, she left her job, took design courses at London College of Fashion and an internship in the industry and launched Dai and her first eight piece collection back in July 2017.  Her tailored, easy-to-wear pieces made from, as she says, “Innovative four-way stretch fabrics” have since diversified beyond office wear and as a company committed to sustainability and positive social impact, Dai is aiming to become fully carbon neutral and use 50% recycled fibres by the end of 2021.  I have here Joanna Dai, she is the Founder of Dai.  I mean you just call it Dai don’t you?

Joanna Dai

Yeah. 

Elliot Moss

It’s very simple.

Joanna Dai

Do or Dai. 

Elliot Moss

Do or Dai and Dai in Mandarin means ‘to wear’?

Joanna Dai

It does yes.  It’s… who knew someone in my family a long time ago, maybe made some clothes to wear but it is the surname and I just picked something simple for the brand, that’s memorable in one syllable.

Elliot Moss

One syllable and it looks good, a D, an A and an I?

Joanna Dai

Yeah.

Elliot Moss

And there you are, you are wearing your blue Dai trousers?

Joanna Dai

Yes.

Elliot Moss

DAI not DYE and the top, Do or Dai.  There you go, the whole thing.  It’s great to have you here.  The world of being employed and then the world of working for yourself, I recounted the story of ‘hold on a minute I could do this and I could do that’ but in your family and in your kind of life before taking the plunge, were there people around you that did this?  Is that where this came from?  Is it in your DNA?

Joanna Dai

I’ve actually thought about that one a lot and so my dad is an entrepreneur, he’s done that for the past over 20 years, it’s a small mechanical engineering firm based out of California and I think I must have absorbed a lot of that self-consciously as I was growing up but on my own personal journey and on reflection, before engineering school and 8 years of investment banking, I did a lot of student government growing up in the United States so I was class president at Cornell.

Elliot Moss

In 2008.

Joanna Dai

Way to date me.  Yeah, here we are trick millennial.

Elliot Moss

That’s a great phrase as well.  So sorry, you were involved in politics?

Joanna Dai

So ever since sixth grade I was running for you know, publicity officer or the secretary on the student body government in my high school and really enjoyed planning events and the Homecoming, the Prom like I am really sounding American right now.

Elliot Moss

Are you American, I hadn’t noticed.

Joanna Dai

But also like designing the class t-shirts and really rallying the people and being creative around ideas that we had and in choosing my first career path didn’t think that that was like a real path I could pursue and being Chinese American you know, there was this it’s got to be engineering or you know, medicine or law, one of those and so I picked engineering because I liked maths and went on a different journey to start my professional career.

Elliot Moss

I mean there is pressure isn’t there from, from I imagine the Chinese American community which is like ‘excuse me you’re immigrant, you’re going to get a proper career, proper Degree, do a proper thing, we’ve got stability in that bedrock’ but actually Joanna that’s, I mean you are a creative person with an engineering degree, you are kind of gold dust.  But I really, I really believe that.  Do you think though if you had been third generation or fourth generation like your kids or grandchildren or whoever it might be, that you would have a different attitude to them  Do you think you would say, ‘ha if you don’t want to study, don’t go study’.  Is that right?

Joanna Dai

I believe in finding the most fulfilment through living your purpose but I think it takes a lifetime to discover what that is and some people might you know, not figure it out when they are still 50 or 60 but I think for me, if I were to speak to my younger generations in the future they should do what makes them feel passionate and that will make them most fulfilled.

Elliot Moss

What I personally like about the Dai clothes is there is just no fuss.  I am a fan of simplicity, I don’t… I like to, I am only a simple fella, I need to keep it simple.  Tell me about the clothes in your own words, you are wearing, you are sporting them and they look fab but the inspiration for you every day is you design the next batch is what?

Joanna Dai

The world has changed post the last almost two years and we are looking at our customers and speaking to them and really trying to empathise with what is going to be the next generation that is going to deliver comfort but in the post Pandemic new normal and I think that is a lot more versatile.  There is a lot more casualization going on in the office and a lot more flexibility between working in the office, working from home and I always saw clothes as being really adaptable, allowing women to go from Monday through Sunday work, after work, weekends, errands, children, all of that and I think we’ve always sourced the fabrics that are performance endurable enough to do all of that and then it’s making sure that we have the designs and the styling and the advice around our clothes that really enable women to wear it every day and everywhere.

Elliot Moss

Do you think that the way you view clothes and women has changed even in the course of the time you have been in the business and set the business up because it strikes me that you talked about the difference between work and home but obviously the thing has fused.  There is no distinction.  How do you create clothes which are really about, they are about function as in what am I doing when I am wearing the clothes but they are also about your state of mind.

Joanna Dai

Absolutely.

Elliot Moss

And that’s a different thing now.  I think when people dress for work, people talk about ‘I put my suit on because I am going to feel suited and booted’ whether you are man or woman, ‘I am going to feel ready for action’.  Ready for action means something quite different now doesn’t it?  How have you managed to pivot in your own mind in terms of actually how the clothes appear?

Joanna Dai

So originally it was about, and it still is today, around performance.  Performance of the clothes empowering the performance of the women and confidence through comfort.  So that is a mind-set.  It is not clothes for women and a lot of these industries that tend to be male dominated and then that bothering their minds or distracting them, we want women to perform their best no matter where they are.  The evolution coming out of lockdown and Covid has been you know, before it was suited and booted, that power suit image was really like our hero product and today it still is but for me coming through the lockdown in my personal experience or cycling to work, we have this blended lifestyle of a hybrid work-from-home, work in the office and women especially in the lockdown had to do so much around the household, the family, the kids and all of that and I envisioned clothes that delivered on all of those functions in her lifestyle, not just to work but then when she puts a blazer on in the same trouser outfit, she looks suited and booted for work and then she can take it off and go and have a drink and go to happy hour.

Elliot Moss

In terms of the thought around empowering women, do you think again you are a product of your upbringing and your environment because obviously I meet amazing women on this programme and in life generally, people talk about empowering women, people talk about feminism, people talk about trends.  For you and your experience, empowering women obviously you’ve brought it to life through clothes but where do you think that desire to empower women came from?

Joanna Dai

You know I think having been brought up professionally in the investment banking environment it was predominantly men and I felt it was mostly democratic but there were certain situations or circumstances where we just, as women, I felt I had to prove myself so much more or do more to really like have my seat at the table and I think it’s coming away from that career, wanting to really do something psychologically that empowered women in their everyday lives and clothes for me was something that before Dai launched, all the clothes on the market were you know, not machine washable, dry-clean only, wrinkled really easily, didn’t stretch at all and for me as someone who came up quite athletic I just saw the fusion of imagining a world where clothes didn’t restrict us but rather empowered us and that little bit in her every day that she is wearing 16 hours a day maybe or travelling with, really bring that across as something that empowered her and then I always believe that brands have the power and a megaphone to stand for something, to be purpose driven.  For us that is empowering women’s lives and I am sure we will touch on this but it is also doing better for our planet.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to find out much more from my very articulate guest, it’s Joanna Dai, she is the Founder of Dai and she will be back in a couple of minutes.  Right now we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Victoria Piggot and Dr Rebecca Newton, Organisational Psychologist and CEO of Coach Advisor, discuss the impact of women in positions of leadership and on Boards.

You can enjoy all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop  ‘Jazz Shapers’ into your podcast platform of choice, we’ve been making podcasts for over 10 years, well before they became á la mode.   Anyway if you’ve got a smart speaker why not ask it to play Jazz Shapers and see what it does, you should be greeted by a taster of our recent shows but back to today’s guest, it’s Joanna Dai, Founder and CEO at womenswear brand Dai, whose work wear as Joanna describes, feels like yoga, wears like a power suit.  You are a purpose driven person, you move from the corporate world, the investment banking world, you have an engineering degree, this weird for me confluence of you know, really serious, serious stuff and yet you seem a very gentle and creative person. You talked about the creativity.  As you built the business up right at the beginning, were you looking for more ‘mini me’s’ or were you looking for people that were distinctly different?

Joanna Dai

Oh that’s a really good question.  I love that you use the term ‘mini me’ because I think that’s been my journey as a sole Founder and as you’ve identified having the creative side and the business analytical side, I felt confident launching as a sole Founder.  As the business grew and really started building out in different departments finding a head of operations or a COO was quite a journey.  I met several different architypes of candidates and ultimately I think I needed a mini me.  Someone who came up through that sort of similar background, can do a lot of the operational bits that I could do so that could be off loaded from me so that I could focus more of my time on the parts that are unique to me, so the vision, the brand, the sustainability, the product sort of unique versatility function, details that I bring into the product design that we have.  So that has been a journey but at the same time the team now is filled with people from the industry as well as people who think like outsiders and I think it is a confluence of the two of them that allows us to be unique and differentiated in the space that we operate in.

Elliot Moss

And that diversity from within the industry and being an outsider and often anyone you hear that’s creative is genuinely an outsider on any you know, parameter whatever it might be whether its colour, whether it’s gender, whether its knowledge.  In terms of diversity, I am quite interested, is it an all-female team?  And if it is, is that as diverse as it ought to be?  I mean I know it’s a womenswear brand which may sound like a strange thing but we see plenty of men who are creative directors and all that, is that just a vestige of an old world where of course it’s a man whereas in fact a woman is much better suited in a womenswear business?

Joanna Dai

That’s a really good question, I mean I think at this point we are looking to hire our first full-time man on the team but we’ve always worked with men who are consultants to the business.  We have men and women at the senior and at the Board level and I think it needs to be a mix of different backgrounds, opinions you know, whatever we bring to the table because the problem would be group think basically and therefore you come up with what everyone around the table believes is a right idea but then you miss a huge, like something huge from the outside that you are not looking at objectively so I think having that diversity is really important.

Elliot Moss

And in terms of your own way of thinking about how you run stuff, you know we are looking at the… I am looking at the sweater here, I feel like I am commentating on a, on a catwalk which I am not.  The Do or Dai sweater, the blue trousers, how much of it is at the end of the day, that’s my call, I am Joanna, I’m the Founder, we are doing that?  The neckline is going to be a certain way, the cuts going to be a certain way, it’s a very sharp look even though it’s relaxed if you know what I mean.  There is a crispness I would say, it’s not like kind of floppy clothes like other brands, it’s got a bit of tension in it.  Is that you?  Or is that other clever creative people also saying ‘no it needs to be a bit more like that’?

Joanna Dai

So at the core of the brand visual identity its clean lines, minimal, it’s tailored, it’s also based on a lot of timeless silhouettes and references back to Christian Dior and back to the Yves St Laurent smoking blazer but it’s a lot of clean lines and then we make it modern and innovative and futuristic through our use of materials or there are some design aspects.  So it’s meant to be timeless and it’s meant to not only last one season.  We don’t do things that are trending, we do things that last and are impactful in your wardrobe season after season.

Elliot Moss

We were talking about clean lines and I sort of jokingly said I wonder if that’s your philosophy.  I am thinking about you as the engineer, you as the leader, you as the Founder and you as the creative person.  How have you applied the clean lines strategy which I have just made up for you but in terms of your focus, because the engineer’s focus in the way that you brought this team to life, we talked about who you’ve hired and encouraging diversity but what does it look like in terms of making sure that this brand that you are nurturing is really going to go?

Joanna Dai

I think that the journey as an entrepreneur and the design of an organisation at such an early stage, there is nothing linear in the clean lines term about that and especially if you throw a Pandemic into the middle of it so I think it’s about always staying clear of what your brand vision and purpose is from the very beginning.  Ours is to deliver a comfort and powered performance and from there that really flows down into what are the areas of the business that we want to invest in first.  This was the first year we brought in a creative director and she is from the design and product side, expansive background in design and tailoring and womenswear before and we want to lead with product innovation, sourcing the best materials in the world and adapting that for our women who is a professional, working women and that’s been the focus of the year and then we built out the rest of the brand experience through your know, customer experience, our website, marketing was the last area and the most recent hire I just made but I had been head of marketing for the last four years so it’s not linear.

Elliot Moss

No.

Joanna Dai

But the brand is clean lines.

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the professional working woman which is you and the women that you serve, the women that buy your clothes, you touched on the Pandemic and someone in your position has to be resilient, they have to be optimistic, they have to be realistic.  When you think about that whole concoction of stuff that you have to remain strong with, how have you personally coped and how do you think you are helping the women that you serve cope?

Joanna Dai

That’s a loaded question.

Elliot Moss

No, no, no, not at all.  No it’s a real… I mean have you, have you, you know you are here, you are smiling, you’re… obviously you are going, we are now you know, later in 2021, things have picked up.  Pop-ups have popped up for you and websites going well but where did the strength come from you when things were looking pretty dark?

Joanna Dai

Last year we really focused on understanding what our brand meant to our customers and around this time last year we launched our Every Collection for the everyday, everywhere, every woman, every time, everything because we realised that her use of our clothes was so much more multi-facetted and versatile than ever before.  As we came into this year and especially April was a big month for us because non-essential re-opened again, we had been sort of hibernation and we have really gone full force at bringing and being in front of our customer in this back-to-life but keep the comfort moment and coming out of lockdown comfort is more important than ever because during lockdown women were wearing the sweatpants, the joggers, the leggings and you know, now having gone back to the first client meetings or whatever it is, we want to look good, we want to keep the elegance but we want to also keep the comfort and I think that has been our brand from the very beginning, this feels like yoga comfort, make it look like a business suit, like a power suit and I think it’s really been a huge moment for us to come out of this so the strength first and foremost comes back to our customers, the original brand mission and through all of the ups and downs and rollercoasters it always going back to that purpose and those values and why I am doing this that really continues to be the endless well of strength and resilience that I bring to the business.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my final chat with Joanna Dai, we will be talking a bit more about the why and what that means in terms of sustainability as well, I’d like to understand a bit more about that before we let you disappear. 

I am with Joanna Dai, she is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes.  You’ve mentioned sustainability, the focus on the why you’ve mentioned, your purpose, specifically help me understand what sustainability means to you personally and then to the business and I know there is probably not much of a distinction because you are you know, the eponymous heroine in this business but just help me understand what is going on?

Joanna Dai

So having started the business in 2017 within the industry, within sourcing raw materials and all of that, it was already a big topic and I think especially through the last two years Pandemic, people realising we don’t need so many things in our closet, I am really glad that that is becoming more and more of a mainstream conversation.  Since launching I always wanted us to become a B Corp.  I set that goal for ourselves very early on and we achieved that last November.  I just came back recently from North America on the west coast and it hasn’t rained all year, there has been unprecedented wild fires.  I was in Vancouver and we went to like the forest and when you are in nature you really feel the awe and splendour of nature and the life that we have in this beautiful planet that we live on and to imagine that maybe in future generations this can no longer be here, it might be all dried out, the water, the lakes, all of that, it’s heart-breaking and I think that hits me really hard and makes me want to use our brand as a platform in voice to be a positive impact in the world in whatever we can do and control within our own supply chain but also to use our brand influence to empower other people with the knowledge and make that more and more mainstream and help our customers and our community understand what it actually means and how we can all do better for the planet.

Elliot Moss

And I imagine being a B Corp means that you have to stick to that even if you didn’t want to which clearly you do.  Do you worry that you are not doing enough and is that what drives part of your efforts?  Without saying you are not doing enough, I am just in terms of just the mentality of you as the Founder, is it never good enough for Joanna in terms of this business?

Joanna Dai

Yeah you can never do quite enough and there is only so much in a day and resources that are finite to me and the whole team currently but I think being a B Corp and having that embedded legally in your Articles of Association makes everyone responsible especially from the top down, from the Board level because it is not just about making a return for shareholders, it’s about all stakeholders and that includes the planet, our team, our customers, our suppliers, everyone that’s impacted and so we obviously would love to do as much as a much, much bigger brand with infinite resources out there but we will do absolutely as much as we can and at the end of the day I think doing our best is the best that we can do.

Elliot Moss

And you are nice to yourself right, you don’t give yourself a hard time for not always reaching the place you want to reach?

Joanna Dai

I try to be kind and compassionate to myself.  I do wish we could do more but I think for now if we can through our current community and through staying ahead of the discussions and involved in working groups and involved with…  we are part of the UN Fashion Charter, if we can do everything we can and stay in the forefront of that, that’s yeah, that’s what it is for now.

Elliot Moss

Be good to yourself, that’s important.  Congratulations for getting so far already, I am sure the next few years we are going to hear a lot more about Dai, I really do.  Just before I let you disappear, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Joanna Dai

So my song choice today is by Valerie June and it’s called Astral Plane and I think especially coming out of the last eighteen months which has been quite chaotic, she is such a soulful, philosophical, spiritual singer in a positive way and the opening lyrics are “is there a light that’s inside you”, you really just have to just trust yourself and look within and that is for me, that sort of infinite resource of how I can them project externally and do my best.

Elliot Moss

Valerie June with Astral Plane, the song choice of my Business Shaper, Joanna Dai.  Her background was in science and yet she is a creative person bringing together the two has been fantastic for her.  The importance to her of purpose, of finding something important within the why of what she is doing and bringing that to life every day.  And finally, great words of advice for anyone thinking about moving into the world of running your own business, do the thing that you are passionate about, simple but absolutely true.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Dai delivers comfort-empowered performance for the modern woman, designing at the intersection of eco-certified technical fabrics, minimal aesthetics, timeless silhouettes, and purposeful versatility. The brand is a Certified B Corporation and is committed to creating a positive environmental and social impact. Since launching in 2017, Dai has been on a tremendous growth trajectory and is a pioneer in sustainable materials innovation and tech-enabled fit and e-commerce experience. Joanna is a US expat based in London and was previously an investment banker for eight years at J.P. Morgan in New York and London.

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