We dial into Zoom with Joanna Dai, founder of ethical fashion brand Dai Wear based at E1 Studios in Whitechapel. She tells us how she's busy donating easy-wash, "power" trousers to frontline NHS workers and preparing to launch a range of high-end protective face masks for the public.

What has it been like running a fashion brand during lockdown?

Joanna Dai: March was such a crazy time. Day by day, the nation was reading changing headlines as we moved into uncertainty. Our customer is a professional woman who wears Dai when she goes out into the world to work, to perform and to feel confident. Since all our customers are now at home, revenue-wise we have taken a hit.

We have been thinking hard about how we can be really relevant and creative and still sympathetic in our messaging during this time. I want to make sure we do the right things for our employees, our store and the whole Dai community.

Tell me about your fantastic donation initiative to support the NHS during this challenging time.

We kept asking ourselves, "What can we do to help the crisis as a fashion apparel brand?". Our most popular, hero product is our trouser so we chose to donate £15,000 worth to NHS women working on the frontline – that was the first thing we could do. I started by writing to a few different organisations, and the chief executive of NHS Charities Together, the main NHS charitable body, wrote back straight away.

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Joanna sets off from E1 Studios with NHS donations in hand

Even though we weren't donating the exact thing that helped solve the principal problem, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), it was great to find out that we could still help in some way. 

I was put in touch with the woman who runs the Barts Health NHS trust, which is the five hospitals in East London, and who's responsible for the charity aspect and donations. That got the ball rolling, and it was just great to get a positive reaction. So many other organisations I emailed responded in due time and it's so nice to see everyone coming together as a community right now.

 

How is your donation helping those on the frontline?

One of our top customers is a doctor and she explained that nurses and doctors are real superheroes right now, pulling extra shifts and going above and beyond to provide care and comfort to those in need. Then they have to commute home and take care of their families. She said that changing into something really comfortable to get to and from work that they can easily toss into the washing machine really makes a difference.

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I thought, great, we're donating trousers no matter what. But why don't we try to mobilise our Dai community of customers? Tell them what we've done and that if they buy a trouser, we'll match it and donate a trouser to the NHS. So, that's what we did. We also placed an option on our website for customers to donate to the NHS Trust COVID-19 Relief Fund and we have raised over £5,000 so far through that.

It's been really great. I was going crazy sitting at home feeling like there's an invisible war out there and we're not doing anything.

What else has Dai Wear been up to since lockdown?

The last few days have been all hands on deck! We have just launched our very own Dai Wear face masks as Boris Johnson begins to ease lockdown measures.

Our pattern cutter has been at home already producing hundreds of masks for charities and companies that are ordering them for their employees before they head back to the office. She has been working hard on the pattern and we should have some ready to order from our website the week commencing 11th May.

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A team Zoom call to discuss the ideal face mask pattern

What inspired Dai Wear to make masks and how is it going?

Everyone has been impacted by coronavirus and we're no exception at Dai. Yet our collective sense of purpose and our calling to do good is stronger than ever. For the past weeks, our Head of Product Development has been at home making masks and scrubs for the NHS. We took inspiration from this, and we took action too.

As of last week, we've redirected all of our efforts at Dai towards developing premium eco-friendly, machine washable masks, featuring a performance antibacterial silver-fiber lining on our cotton styles.

Together with our partner makers and factories, we are committed to donating masks and net proceeds from sales to support the NHS and those most in need.

What have been your strengths as a brand during this difficult time?

We really feel that we can fall back to our core values and our brand commitments around sustainability and empowering women. Coronavirus has accelerated the overall awareness of sustainability and fashion. By really leveraging our core values, we have a voice and we have something to talk about.

For Earth Day on 20th April, we focused on our regenerated fibers from the ocean that are made into tops like fishing nets. We gifted one to each customer who ordered on that day. During fashion revolution week, we used our mailing list to talk about transparency and who makes our clothes. It's about being relevant and being sympathetic to our customers and to the world right now.

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What would you say to the brands that feel like their small actions couldn't make a difference to the world right now?

Anything that's positive, charitable, or trying to make an impact in this present climate is going to be seen as something that's positive, regardless of how big or small. I think just being creative around whatever your businesses might be will enable you to relate it back the coronavirus crisis and how people are feeling. Staying relevant and sympathetic to the situation, be that through your social media channels, really does help.

Then the little things, like checking in on your employees' wellbeing and mental health during this time. Every two weeks we have a team Zoom with our employees who are currently on furlough to check in and see how everyone's doing.

What do you miss most about an office environment?

The crisis has certainly shown that working from home is effective and productive for certain types of things, like when you need to hunker down and get some strategic work done. But I think there are parts of the company that are simply better and more productive in person.

In fashion or something creative, it is a more visual job. There are some things that need to live in the studio, like samples, prototypes and machining for the garments. Fittings need to be done in person. Our pattern cutter has to look at the garment on me and you can't do that virtually because it's going to be warped and blurry.

Although working from home has its benefits, I think the sort of synergies you get with a group of creative people in an office environment when it comes to brainstorming for marketing, branding and communications is hard to beat and we look forward to getting back to the studio – whenever that may be!  

 

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