Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Joanna Dai is the founder and CEO of womenswear fashion brand, Dai. Dai is performance wear for the professional woman, combining smart, technical fabrics with tailoring and aesthetic. The brand advocates for sustainability and social impact that empowers women. Joanna is a US expat based in London, and was previously an investment banker for 8 years at a global financial services firm in New York and London. She graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and hails from Southern California which could explain her obsession with comfort and ease.
What is the idea behind DAI and how did you come up with it?
The idea came from my 8 years of 12-14 hour days in investment banking. The continuous hustle, constrictive waistbands and arm movement, and lack of functionality like large pockets were a few of my frustrations. I saw the athleisure trend take off and smarter textile technology readily accessible. So I asked myself if work clothes could have similar fabric attributes – if workwear could be technical yet tailored. I believe comfort is confidence, and confidence is key to optimizing performance and presence.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
I started learning and researching since last September, which involved a combination of design and technical courses at London College of Fashion, attending textile exhibitions including Premiere Vision, and an internship with luxury British womenswear designer, Emilia Wickstead (who also made my wedding dress). I hit the ground in March with product development and sampling, and launched in July 2017. I’m the only full-time employee. I have relied on the expertise of freelancers, and just started having a few part-time interns since July.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
It is still early days for us, so 6 weeks since launch and less than a year since I started researching.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Budget. While I’ve sourced innovative, premium raw materials and top technical talent in London to develop the products, I have bootstrapped the company on a shoestring budget from my savings – so no outside investors and no crowdfunding. I’ve had many heartfelt pitches to talented freelancers and high-quality suppliers in hopes that they’d invest into Dai’s vision and future potential whenever I fell short on their minimum order quantities or pricing, which was often. I am very thankful for the goodwill people have shown.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
The reaction of real women to the products has been very positive and validating. Women have said, “The material is high quality, comfortable, and durable,” “the lines/seams are cut in the most flattering way to accentuate every body type's best features,” and “the fabric - it is incredible!” We’ve had strong preorder numbers from a few private trunkshows, which is gratifying.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
Despite the smart fabric technology being our main unique selling point, we still fall within the saturated and competitive market segment of womenswear. When it comes to getting the attention of the larger press, partnerships or bloggers, I feel like we are David facing Goliath. It motivates me that much more, but also teaches me to adapt my strategy towards more creative and grassroots ways to find our target professional woman.
Coming from 8 years in finance where it was definitely not female-dominated environment to womenswear fashion, I’ve experienced a welcomed boost in interactions with fellow female founders, women in fashion, and my customer base, of course. But interestingly, in a Business of Fashion survey of 50 major fashion brands, just 14% were led by women. Of the 4 major fashion weeks, female designer brands are still a minority at 40%. Even in womenswear, I do believe society and the media still bias traits such as artistic, creative, autonomous and leadership towards men. As well, I have not approached the VC world yet but am well aware of the statistics in favour of male entrepreneurs.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Absolutely. I actually studied Electrical and Computer Engineering in undergrad where there was only a handful of women in my graduating year. My observation was that our group projects and study groups were more interactive and inclusive. I would even say we had a lot of fun, and I believe a diverse environment fosters that level of collaboration. I believe diversity is critical to the future sustainability and success in tech companies and tech functions across other industries. Women should feel not just supported but empowered to be a part of the value-adding minority demographic in tech.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
Be authentic. Whoever you are pitching to, working with, or challenged by is also human. Communicate with openness and genuineness – the truth is compelling and will earn you respect.
What will be the key trends in the fashion tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Speaking on behalf of my brand, I think the rate of pollution and waste as a result of fast fashion is unsustainable, and consumer thinking will have to shift over the next five years. I believe smart textile technology based on sustainable solutions will ramp up. We’re already seeing more brands adapt to tech fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles or coffee grounds as examples. Personally, I loved the Google Glass concept (although it was aesthetically hideous), I love Snapchat’s current Spectacles campaign, and I hope to see beautiful eyeware that gives a peripheral display of what your iWatch tells you now (time, temperature, sunrise/sunset, messages, reminders, maybe click the corner frame to answer a call). Is someone working on that?
Who are your 3 inspirational women in fashion tech?
Natalie Massenet. She was so pioneering with her website magazine idea where you can shop luxury brands back in 2000. The execution of Net-a-Porter was brilliant, and I love how she hustled to sign up high-end designers in the beginning and how she operated out of her bathtub.
Jennifer Hyman, co-founder of Rent the Runway. I’ve just listened to her on NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast, and she really is a visionary on the shared economy (over an ownership economy) and successfully built a fashion tech company around that. She also has grit beyond imagination to score their high-profile meetings and press coverage in the beginning.
I think Mira Duma is one to watch with where she takes Fashion Tech Lab. She has clearly proven her entrepreneur skills with founding two startups and investing in several others. She has the influence, so to use it to invest in sustainable and environmental innovations is significant.
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Meet Joanna at our upcoming event - Next Wave Fashion Tech, London 25 April!
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.