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.