With its maritime environment and booming local economy, Dalian is consistently ranked among China's most liveable cities. It's also renowned for its burgeoning fashion industry, underpinned by the city's high-profile fashion festival and long-standing role as one of northeast China's garment manufacturing hubs.
'Today, Shanghai, Beijing and Dalian are China's premier fashion centres,' says Brian Cui, a member of the overseas development team at the Dalian-based International Brand Agency Centre (IBAC).
'This city has long been known for its cosmopolitan flavour. Many tourists from Japan, South Korea and Russia visit Dalian every year. Many locals, especially the younger generation, are heavily exposed to overseas trends and like to think of themselves as fashionistas.'
Dalian may not be the envy of Paris, Milan or New York just yet, but local officials have these international hotbeds of fashion firmly in their sights. Despite difficult times during the recent financial crisis, sustained investment in Dalian's budding fashion and textile industries seems to be paying off. In the first three quarters of last year, the revenue of the city's apparel industry rose to 13.66 billion yuan (HK$16.67 billion), a year-on-year increase of nearly 20 per cent, while the value of exports rose to 11.4 billion yuan, up 6.3 per cent.
An integral part of boosting Dalian's fashion status has been the arrival of foreign brands. Founded in 2008, IBAC is playing an increasingly important role in encouraging and enabling prestigious overseas labels to enter the Chinese market. It also helps Chinese companies to review and order overseas fashions without them having to go abroad. The centre has built offices in Italy and Spain and set up agencies and offices across the mainland.
'In 2008, IBAC held its first promotional conference in Italy and signed agreements with a wide range of Italian brands,' Cui says. 'In 2009, we had a major breakthrough when our first joint venture with high-end Italian fashion brand Gattinoni was confirmed. In October 2009, Gattinoni opened its first flagship store on the mainland in the International Brand Zone at Dalian's Parkland Shopping Mall.'
IBAC has helped about 30 international brands to set up showrooms in 15 Cool, a new lifestyle and retail complex in Dalian's port area. The centre has also co-operated with overseas companies opening flagship stores in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenyang. Late last year, the Dalian government signed a memorandum of co-operation with the Spanish fashion industry.
'Rapid development always brings pressures,' Cui says. 'Everyone wants a piece of the pie. We need more experienced professionals to sustain and manage growth in the right way, but these people can often earn more in Shanghai or Beijing - it's often difficult to attract or retain them. As a medium-sized city, we will have to work hard to really become a centre of creative excellence and fashion.'