Italian fashion house breathes new life into iconic garden villa
A historical garden residence in Shanghai called Rong Zhai has been restored by luxury fashion house Prada and Italian architect Roberto Baciocchi and is now open to the public. Due to the long queues of visitors waiting to view the house every day, the original one-month opening has been extended to Dec 17.
Located on 186 North Shaanxi Road, the heritage architecture was built in the years between 1899 and 1910. Its first owner was a German who left China after World War I. The next resident was Rong Zongjing (1873-1938), a wealthy businessman from Wuxi, Jiangsu province, who was often referred to as the Flour King of China. Rong purchased the mansion in 1918 and commissioned Chinese designer Chen Chunjiang to remodel the property.
Rong and his brother Desheng were the ones who started the flour business in their hometown in 1901. By 1936, the family had owned 21 factories in Shanghai, Wuxi, Hankou of central China’s Hubei province and Shandong’s provincial capital Jinan. The family, which also owned a successful yarn production business, was regarded as one of the richest in the country.
“When I was a child I always heard my great-grandfather talk about life in the house,” said Rong Kangxin, a great-grandson of Rong Zongjing.
“He said the house was always used to host various events and parties for social elites, politicians, bankers and entrepreneurs. These people would gather in our home to have fun and talk about politics.”
However, when the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression broke out across the country in 1930s, Rong moved to Hong Kong, leaving the house vacant for half a century.
In 2002, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch rented the house and turned it into the Shanghai office of News Corporation. The company occupied the property for nearly 10 years.
In 2011, Prada took over the residence. The fashion brand then engaged the help of Baciocchi, who was renowned for his expertise in historical architecture, to restore the property.
Restoration works spanned six years and the residence was unveiled to the public in mid-October.
Prada will also be using the venue to host various cultural activities and fashion exhibitions.
Rong Zhai is not the first historical building that Prada has had a hand in restoring.
The fashion house has also helped to repair the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the world’s oldest shopping mall in central Milan, and the Palazzo or Ca’ Corner della Regina, a Baroquestyle building in Venice.
Patrizio Bertelli, the CEO of Prada Group, said: “We hope to associate our brand with history and not just fashion.”
Bertelli explained that Prada chose to restore Rong Zhai because of its distinctive features that combine Western and traditional Chinese styles.
The property, which measures around 4,200 square meters, comprises a three-story building with a floor space of 2,182 sq m and a sprawling 2,475-sq-m garden.
Zheng Shiling, a historical preservation expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that Prada’s efforts to preserve the residence can be held up as an example for others to follow.
“The restoration of heritage architecture is costly and requires great skill. It’s better that such buildings are being used by companies and wealthy individuals who can afford to care for it,” said Zheng.
“These buildings should be opened to the public but the owners should discourage large numbers of people from visiting at any one time so as to protect the property.”
Members of the public can view the newly renovated Rong Zhai from now till Dec 17.
Rong Zhai was once home to Rong Zongjing, who was known as the Flour King of China.