In a bright, airy studio in east London, Joanna Dai shows me her latest collection of women’s workwear. The tapered trousers, collarless blazers and short-sleeved shift dresses are simple and stylish, featuring blocks of oxblood, navy and cream over intricate patterns. Anyone would think she had been designing clothes for years, but in fact she only founded her label, Dai, two years ago, after a dramatic career change. Before she picked up her dressmaking shears, Dai spent eight years as an investment banker. Her worklife was typically hectic, involving long hours and a lot of travel, and it was on her way home from one trip that she had what she describes as her “eureka moment”. On a return flight from Stockholm, 16 hours after she had got dressed, “the waistband was digging in, I couldn’t move my arms. I thought to myself: ‘why can’t workwear feel like yoga, and still look like a power suit?’”
Over the years she had often felt that her clothes weren’t up to the job. Her trousers didn’t fit properly, and her dresses were made of heavy, sweaty fabrics. Nothing could be put in the washing machine, and so time would have to be carved out of her busy week to drop things off at a dry cleaner and pick them up again. She sensed she was not alone in her frustrations. Women worldwide spend $35bn on workwear every year. A good proportion of this was surely spent on clothes that chafe, crease and confine; that were dry-clean-only and got thrown away after a few years.
Dai retrained as a fashion designer and set out to realise her dream: making work clothes from the same kinds of fabrics you might see at the gym. She is one of a number of female entrepreneurs addressing what they see as the market’s failure to deliver what women want: flattering, comfortable, machine-washable clothing that doesn’t need to be ironed. Yehua Yang and Evelyn Frison, two friends from New York with “a shared hatred of women’s pants”, set up Pivotte to offer “low-maintenance clothing for high-performing women”. Sarah LaFleur, tired of “blah-feeling pantsuits” from her career in finance, is the founder of MM.LaFleur, another New York-based brand. Its clothes have “stretchy sleeves for hailing cabs” and pockets “for holding presentation notes”. Elizabeth & Clarke, a clothing company founded by Melanie Moore, another former investment banker and also based in New York, recently released the Unstainable Workwear Collection. Its shirts, skirts and blazers are designed to repel liquid, including coffee spillages, lunch splatters and sweat.
What these clothes have in common is their hi-tech fabric – the companies variously claim to have worked with textile experts, engineers and scientists to produce breathable, moisture-wicking clothes that won’t pill or crease. The response from consumers has been enthusiastic. MM.LaFleur’s “Etsuko” dress, a simple knee-length design with an adjustable belt and three-quarter length sleeves, has apparently made the company more than $3m. One journalist, invited to test the dress for Business Insider, wrote that “it’s as comfortable as anything else I own, T-shirts included”. Pivotte’s “24/7” trousers, which boast “four-way stretch” and “exceptional recovery”, have sold out four times. Dai says she is “constantly” contending with a waiting list.
When I try on Dai’s clothes, I understand why. The dresses are flattering and shapely without giving me a welt across my waist (unlike one expensive number in my wardrobe, bought for my first internship). The “Straight Up” trousers – made from Lycra and microfibre – are soft, stretchy and light. I put them – and the “Now and Forever” blouse – through their paces over the course of a full working day. I shove the shirt into my gym bag in the evening, and it emerges in the changing room the next morning looking crisp. Unfortunately I don’t get a chance to see how the clothes fare in the wash (such is the level of demand that Dai needs the stock back) and I’m sad to give them up.
It feels like progress, certainly, but it doesn’t come cheap. A MM.LaFleur dress will set you back $195; Pivotte’s trousers are $220 a pair. Dai says her clothes are best thought of as investments to be made back over many wears and many years. Most of us, however, will just have to wait for the high street to sit up and take note.