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The gypsum build-up was removed to uncover the original colour of the interior walls, which were then recreated using modern pigment

A long time ago – in 1918, to be exact – a Wuxi-born, self-made industrialist named Yung Tsoong-King (aka China’s “flour king” then) transformed a Western-style garden villa in Shanghai’s affluent Jing’an District into his lively, beloved family home. Within its regal Beaux Arts exterior, the three-storey abode was a lavishly eclectic yet cosy mix of Revival and Art Deco embellishments.

The walls, for example, were covered mostly in ornately hand-carved teak wood, marquetry or warm, dusky pastels that bring to mind Wes Anderson-meets-Tuscany at sunset. Ceilings were swathed in gilded, neoclassical-style mouldings and – in the case of the ballroom, the venue for numerous parties that were rumoured to have lasted for days – a 480 sq ft-wide, stained glass skylight with a gold and indigo sunburst motif.

The Yungs, with their brood of eight, would live in such grandeur until the Second Sino-Japanese War forced them to decamp to Hong Kong 20 years later. Their dwelling at 186 North Shaan Xi Road would stand (it was even declared an outstanding historical building in 2005), but its glamour would not. According to reports, it was rented out post-war to the Economic Research Institute, followed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

It would not be for years till an Italian – a queen from the land of luxury fashion with a penchant for mixing the old with new, the beautiful with the ugly – and her husband would arouse the mansion from its artistic slumber. In 2011, Miuccia Prada’s namesake label announced that it would be restoring the site with the architect Roberto Baciocchi, the man behind many of its cinematically chic stores. This recent past October, Prada Rong Zhai – “Rong” being Hanyu Pinyin for Yung, and “Zhai” the Chinese word for residence – was revealed; its nostalgic romance further revived through a series of jubilant events (the restaging of the brand’s Resort 2018 show with the addition of exclusive looks, a party with Ansel Elgort on decks) for press and VIPs.

Rong Zhai, by all means, is not Prada’s first preservation project. Three years ago, for example, it teamed up with Versace to spruce up Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the world’s oldest shopping mall that’s been housing the brand’s boutique since 1913. (A gallery erected above the store last year was the setting for the original Resort 2018 showcase in May.) Over in South-east Milan, it adapted a sprawling liquor distillery dating back to the 1910s, adding alongside new structures (one still under construction) to create the headquarters for Fondazione Prada, its progressive art institution.

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Rong Zhai at dusk.
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The smoking room with its hand-carved wood panelling.

A big part of what makes Rong Zhai particularly intriguing is its locale on the world map. “Why Shanghai?” the press prodded, the significance of the Asian consumer and the proximity of the brand’s flagship at the nearby Plaza 66 mall on the minds of many. (Among the guests were top-spending customers, flown in to partake in the festivities, and pre-order the collection’s frothy shirts and dresses, James Jean-illustrated sports jackets and schoolgirl socks the day after the show.)

Says Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of the Prada Group and husband to Mrs Prada: “We want to do it because we want to give an identity and pride that goes beyond a fashion brand. When it came to (doing a project like this) in the Chinese market, we thought about our brand identity and what fits with our past and present.”

Indeed, cultivating culture is as definitive of Prada as its collections and business dealings. While it declined to comment on how much it had spent on conserving Rong Zhai, Chinese history and architecture expert Zheng Shiling, who was present at the press conference, estimated that it would have cost hundreds of millions of yuan (100 million yuan is equivalent to about S$21 million).

The attention to detail is remarkable. Missing or broken pieces of stained glass, for instance, were replaced with vintage ones that approximated the original. The laborious lost wax technique was used to recast lighting fixtures to replicate their intricate details.

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The Lotus bedroom where missing tiles were recast by hand.

In short, Rong Zhai was recreated to as close to how it was nearly a century ago, using materials and techniques as close to the ones used then (with modern amenities like air conditioning and dual flush toilets fitted in seamlessly). Till Dec 17, an exhibition on the restoration is on view via appointments that can be made on the brand’s website. Going forward, the space can be used for anything from fashion shows to other public activities, says Bertelli.

At a time when fashion, and even culture, often feels excessive, superficial and fleeting, Rong Zhai seems almost like a fairy tale. As Michael Rock of the New York creative firm 2X4, a long-time collaborator who was part of the restoration team, says: “When we first started working on (Prada’s) Epicentre store in New York with Rem Koolhaas, her charge was ‘I want to make a store that’s unlike my brand’, because architecture allows it to grow beyond the repetition of a store that you might perhaps see at duty-free. (She) uses architecture to expand the way she thinks…

“That ties back to the question of experience. It’s not enough to sell some handbag because you probably can do that online, and it’d be fine. The experience of shopping also has to extend the narrative beyond the product in order to create something really special.”

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The dining room that had its missing cornices recreated.
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Miuccia Prada post-show, which was held in the ballroom with its grand skylight

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This story first appeared in Female’s December 2017 issue. 

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