In her former life as a banking executive, Joanna Dai sometimes worked 18-hour days and regularly walked out of 10-hour flights directly into business meetings. She was up to the rigors of her high-powered job, but her clothes weren’t. Her expensive, tailored suits and beautiful silk dresses would be a sweaty, crumpled mess after a long day. “There are plenty of brands that sell beautiful, well-made clothes that you can wear to the office,” Dai says. “But they don’t seem particularly well-suited to the way we work today.”
So, with no experience in fashion whatsoever, Dai decided to create a new clothing label focused on inventing the workwear of the future. Dai, who studied electrical and computer engineering in college before spending a decade at Bear Stearns and J.P. Morgan, wasn’t particularly worried about her lack of design experience. She took a two-week course at the London College of Fashion and then interned for designer Emilia Wickstead. And last year, she launched an eponymous brand, Dai, in London. She personally designed every piece in the collection. “In some ways, I think the fact that I did not spend a lot of time in the fashion industry was an asset,” she says. “I didn’t feel constrained by industry norms.”
One industry norm she’s tackled head-on is what materials can go into luxury garments. The luxury industry focuses on using premium fabrics like top-shelf silk, cotton, and linens. These fabrics are beautiful and well-made, but after a few hours, they tend to crease, wrinkle, and stain, which doesn’t look very polished or professional. Dai wanted to experiment with incorporating some of the most technical fabrics on the market–the kind that activewear brands use in their performance gear–into high-end professional clothing. So while the outfits have classic workwear silhouettes, when you put them on, they feel a lot more like the clothes you wear to the gym. The clothes in her line start at $115 for a simple shell blouse, which puts it squarely in the entry luxury category and at a similar price point as competitors like Theory, MM.Lafleur, and Hugo Boss.
Dai’s startup is part of a trend in the fashion industry of incorporating technical fabrics into everyday clothes. Men’s shirt brands like Ministry of Supply and Mizzen+Main have incorporated technical fabrics into dress shirts. And activewear brands like Carbon38 have gone beyond running pants and sports bras to make dresses and pants that might be work-appropriate, depending on your office culture. But Dai’s brand stands out because she is exclusively focused on making high-tech, high-end women’s workwear, catering to the many female professionals who are still required to wear formal clothes to the office. “There’s been all of this talk about how the workplace is becoming more casual,” Dai says. “But having worked in an industry where the dress code is still alive and well, I know there’s still a demand for suits and shift dresses. Women in law, politics, and finance aren’t wearing sneakers to the office just yet.”
She sources most of her materials from an Italian mill called Eurojersey, which makes a brand of textiles called Sensitive Fabrics that are often used in biking gear and ballet clothes. The brand is known for creating fabrics that have a body mapping effect, creating a linear and homogenous look whether it is covering an elbow or a torso. And the fabrics have a range of high-tech functions like breathability, wicking moisture, resisting creasing and pilling, and four-way stretch.
I tried on a midnight blue Dai blazer ($475) and trousers ($225) to see this material at work. While you can tell that it isn’t made of cotton or wool, the suit doesn’t have the kind of shiny, stretchy texture you might find in sports gear. But when you put it on, it does, indeed stretch, creating sleek lines, and no creases. I tested it on a warm day, but it didn’t feel too hot, thanks, in part, to the breathable fabric. With her suits, Dai deliberately creates more masculine cuts, with angled shoulders and lapels. “Working in finance, I was often the only woman in the room,” she says. “I like the symmetry of my suit matching the suit of the man sitting on the other side of the table from me.”
Dai also has some feminine pieces in her collection. Besides the classic shift dresses, she designed the $325 Regatta dress that has a cap sleeve and an A-line skirt that is made from a similar material as the suit. It’s a dress that would look appropriate at the office, but might also work for a date night or a weekend day out. “When you start using materials that are easier to actually live in, the clothes themselves become more versatile,” says Dai. “You can wear them from the office to another event, or from work week to weekend.”
Dai sells the clothes entirely through her website, so her brand has so far been popular with millennial professionals who like to shop online. But these women–who are in their late twenties and early thirties–also happen to be much more environmentally and socially conscious than previous generations of consumers. Dai has kept that in mind as she’s built out her company. Dai is certified by Positive Luxury, a third-party organization that assesses the impact of companies, including their social and environmental standards, their philanthropic goals, and their leadership. Dai also partners with suppliers with a track record of sustainability. Eurojersey, for instance, has a solar panel system that powers the entire mill and filters water so it can be used over and over again in the manufacturing process. “When I launched my brand, I was thinking about the future of women’s workwear,” Dai says. “And it’s clear to me that I need to run this company sustainably to ensure it’s a future we actually want to be part of.”