PORTLAND — China's largest footwear and apparel company, Li Ning Co., known as the "Nike of China, has set up shop in Portland with an office to design athletic shoes. Its red logo looks a lot like the Nike "Swoosh."

PORTLAND — China's largest footwear and apparel company, Li Ning Co., known as the "Nike of China, has set up shop in Portland with an office to design athletic shoes. Its red logo looks a lot like the Nike "Swoosh."

The company opened its design office in Northwest Portland, incorporated as Li Ning Sports USA Inc. "to design athletic shoes and apparel and to engage in any lawful business," Oregon Corporation Division records show.

Some think the move solidifies Portland's status as a world center for the sports apparel industry. It joins Nike and Columbia Sportswear Co., in Beaverton, and Adidas America Inc., a Germany-based company with U.S. headquarters in Portland.

It may be Li Ning's first office outside China. Nobody is sure.

Industry-watchers say the move indicates that the fast-growing company wants to tap the talent pool here. Li Ning is the No. 3 manufacturer of sneakers sold in China, after Nike and Adidas, but sells little outside China.

"It's smart," said Rob Langstaff, past president of Adidas' North American unit. "They are a growing brand, and they want to have talented designers working on their products."

Li Ning, founded by China's Olympic gold-medal gymnast of the same name, may try to sell its products here, industry insiders say.

In 2006, the company signed an endorsement deal with its first NBA player — Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Damon Jones, who laces up Li-Ning's "Flying Armor," basketball shoes.

"Having expertise in a region you hope to expand into makes a world of sense," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

Jennifer So, an analyst with CIMB-GK Securities in Hong Kong, said the company is the only Chinese sporting goods firm thinking of selling globally while also taking on Nike and Adidas at home.

Li Ning aims to capitalize on this year's Beijing Olympics by opening more stores, most of them in China.

The company also has a five-year deal with NBA star Shaquille O'Neal to sell his Dunkman shoes in China, and it sponsors the Spanish and Argentine national basketball teams.

"In the longer term, I believe the company has the ambition of entering into the international sportswear business," So said in an e-mail to The Oregonian.

Expanding globally won't be easy but opening a U.S. design outpost is a good step, said Martin Roll, an Asian branding consultant based in Singapore.

Other makers of sports shoes and apparel also have come to Portland in the past two years.

They include Keen Inc., New Zealand-based apparel maker Icebreaker and luxury French sports brand Le Coq Sportif. Some are hiring designers.

"Portland is where it's at right now in terms of sports and athletic and art and design and an amazing place to live," said Sue Parker, chief executive of Frank Creative Workgroup, a Los Angeles ad firm that works with outdoor and athletic companies.

The company has hired Alan Hardy, formerly a senior designer at Nike and design director at Converse Inc.

"He's ex-Nike and Converse and well-regarded," said Ross Regis, whose local executive- recruiting firm, Search Synergy Inc., targets the footwear and apparel industry.