"liverpool? Fashionable? Don't they all wear shell suits, brandish guns and have Barry Grant haircuts? Isn't it the poorest city in Britain?" People laughed when I told them I was going to Liverpool to write about the most fashionable city in Britain. But after a weekend of designer label spotting, capuccino slurping, fancy bar openings, and soaking up the sweat drenched atmosphere at Cream, one of the country's most happening nightclubs, the looks of disbelief turned to curiosity. "You mean it's really worth going there?" they asked.

Meet John Rowley, 28, and his partner, Tracy Fredson, 26. Rowley could have walked out of a fashion spread, and looks just the part when out buying clothes for his shop, Smith & Westwood. Tracy Fredson, display manager for Wade Smith, wears Comme des Garcons, Dries Van Noten and Victor Victoria. Their city-centre loft conversion looks like it might have been featured in an interiors magazine. Together, they are representative of the new life breezing into Liverpool.

Time was when Liverpool was overshadowed by Manchester. But whereas its rival peaked in the late 1980s, Liverpool is just about ready to explode. You would never have heard accents from Glasgow, Edinburgh, London or Grimsby chattering away in club queues a few years ago. Indeed, you would never have seen club queues. But times have changed. Over the next five years, the city is to be injected with pounds 2bn from the EU and the Government, in a rescue scheme similar to those that saved Dublin and Glasgow. The fashion police have been caught off guard.

The Lyceum cafe at the bottom of Bold Street, once the city's answer to Bond Street, opens for breakfast and has a late licence until 1 am. Since opening last December, it has provided a focal point for a burgeoning cafe society. The man behind The Lyceum is a symbol of the new mood. Originally from north London, Rob Gutmann, 28, went to Liverpool University, and stayed. When he arrived, the city was in the depths of depression: "It couldn't have got any worse." After almost 10 years away from London, he was fed up with the city not having any decent eating places, and borrowed pounds 400,000 to put into The Lyceum and the newly opened restaurant next door. The investment has paid off, and Liverpool's clothes-obsessed shoppers now have somewhere to stop off for a capuccino.

Gutmann is impressed with the way the city, recently dubbed the "pool of talent", is changing. "Students are more likely to stay here now," he says. According to him, the turning-point was the Albert Dock development, which made people aware of Liverpool and gave it a positive image. "Liverpool," he says, "will look smashing in five years' time."

For the thousands of young party animals who regularly descend on the city centre for Friday and Saturday all-nighters at Cream, Liverpool looks smashing right now. On the first Saturday of August, the queue was 10- deep and stretching around two blocks. A gang of eight lads who had travelled all the way from Scotland were worried. "I don't think we're going to get in," said one. A scout was sent down the line to pick out the most sensational aspirants. In Liverpool, that can mean anything from thigh- high red patent kinky-boots to a Courreges-style bra-top made of chainmail. The lucky handful are whisked to the front.

There is something Italian about Liverpudlian attitudes towards clothes. Grunge never really hit the city: the look is smart, verging on glitzy.

Sarah Singleton, 29, owns More Cherubs, a small shop selling clubwear by local and London-based designers in Cavern Walks shopping centre. The attitude towards fashion is very positive, she says: "People aren't scared to make an effort and dress up in one look for day and another for night. Fashion has become more glamorous. That is just up Liverpool's street."

Her turnover is quick - conventional seasons are not enough. Designers respond to what they see in the clubs within days, and by the following Saturday the clothes will be on the rails. This summer, stretchy wet-look satin dresses have sold well.

If Liverpool's pre-mortgage generation has money to burn, it will be spent on clothes and beer. But before John Rowley (ex-business partner of Vivienne Westwood and now working with Bella Freud) and his son, John Rowley Jnr, opened Smith & Westwood four years ago, the average Scouser thought Paul Smith was a footballer. The shop has moved on to sell Dries Van Noten, Comme des Garcons, and Bella Freud and, over the four years that Smith & Westwood has been open, there has been a growing awareness of labels and quality clothing. "Liverpool is definitely loosening up," says Rowley Jnr. "There are so many people coming from other cities now. The new bars have been a big help."

Such bars as Mello Mello, in the strip between Bold Street and Duke Street, have been instrumental in building a fashionable new scene. Ted Baker, the menswear brand that chose Liverpool to launch its second line, Ted Baker Lite, has provided shirts for the bar's staff and uses it to host promotional events.

Ray Kelvin, Ted Baker's right hand man, says, "Liverpool's got a good fashion standing, but for too long it has been starved of quality, design- led stores." He moved Ted Baker into the Cavern quarter last November and sales were so good that he swiftly moved into the shop next door too. "The men in Liverpool are really into their clothes, but in a very laddy way - they like labels. It's important to them to wear a nice shirt. We sell a lot of bright red shirts here."

Opposite Ted Baker is Wade Smith. It opened seven years ago and now occupies four floors. It plans to open a childrenswear store this September, making Ralph Lauren available to the city's most fashionable infants. Like Ted Baker, Wade Smith has filled a gap in the market. On a busy Saturday afternoon, it is buzzing with shoppers looking for something to wear that night. Liz Worthington, 23, is one of them. She has worked at Mello Mello since graduating from her fashion and textiles degree last year.

"People spend a lot of time on their appearance here," she says. She has witnessed a remarkable change in the quality and range of clothes available in the city centre. She no longer has any need to go shopping in Manchester.

But it's at night that the fashion parade really begins. By nine o'clock, the bars are spilling out on to the pavements, with copious consumption of strangely flavoured vodkas and Hooch, the latest drink to hit town (a potent alcoholic lemonade). The really eager ones will go straight to queue for Cream, but once inside, the heat and darkness is intense. Mascara runs, lipstick melts and hairstyles collapse.

When the club empties and the wide-eyed nocturnal ravers pour out into the streets for a dawn breakfast at the nearby Baa Bar, it is difficult to imagine the time and care that went into each outfit. But fashion moves quickly in Liverpool, and while clubland sleeps, local designers are already busy, planning the clothes that will be hanging on the rails at More Cherubs, and worn out on the town in five days' time.