NEW YORK — Everyone is looking to China for inspiration these days — including Miuccia Prada.

For Prada, those Asian influences are found not only in her spring collections, but also in the new design concept of the SoHo store, which will be unveiled at a party this evening. Only 14 months after opening, the sprawling space has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts with an installation entitled “Parallel Universe.”

This story first appeared in the February 25, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

When it opened in December 2001, the high tech, 30,000 square-foot store, built at an estimated cost of $30 million, drew all sorts of industry scrutiny — good and bad — given the waning economy, the troubled retail sector and the post-Sept. 11 distaste of any over-the-top displays of commerce or conspicuous consumption. But Prada has trumped the naysayers by forging ahead with her and architect Rem Koolhaas’ initial plan for a totally innovative retail concept. The new installation is the first of many that will significantly alter the flagship’s aesthetic at regular intervals.

“The basic idea of the store was that it was a place where we could experiment on different levels,” said Prada over the telephone from Milan, where she was busily putting the finishing touches on her Prada and Miu Miu collections.

“Three years ago we started saying that we were kind of fed up with the old stores all being equal. That was the reason we contacted these famous architects, and since the beginning the idea was to do something new and different.”

Though changing the installations once or twice a year may seem like an expensive proposition, not so, according to Prada. “Changing [the store], it’s not crazy at all. It’s like normal expenses. We also like the idea that sometimes [the installations] can be super-expensive and other times super-poor.”

While the store’s detractors maintain that the space is pretentious and unshoppable, Prada disagrees, pointing to positive consumer reactions.

“The store is super-successful. It is the first or second store in America, and we are super happy. Remember when everybody said that we were wrong, that we were crazy? Now everybody is doing it,” said Prada, likely referring to the recent roll-out of high-concept retail stores from luxury brands like Armani and Gucci Group. The new store concept is a product of an ongoing collaboration with Koolhaas, whose philosophy for “Parallel Universe” was to create an atmosphere of shopping and living in another geographic locale within a static retail clime. In this case, it’s China.

“We always conceived of that space as one that was unpredictable, one that would change character and wouldn’t always be the same. So that’s what we’re doing,” said Koolhaas.

The store’s conceit has evolved from depicting Prada’s images of beauty and fashion to portrayals which reflect renderings of Chinese life, like a person eating a bowl of noodles, someone getting a haircut or having their ear examined by a doctor. Other elements included in the installation are fleets of vintage, occidental-looking mannequins from China along with video and digital stills of other vivid eastern images. Stretched along the entire store’s length is an expanse of wallpaper that depicts a stadium in China with thousands of people holding up placards to form a larger image of Asian women with uplifted arms.

“Everyone is obsessed by China now. I have always been obsessed with it,” said Prada. “I like that world in general and there is so much happening there now. Everybody is going there like artists and architects, it’s a place full of new life.”

“We called it ‘Parallel Universe’ based on our recent experience in China,” said Koolhaas. “We did all kinds of documentary and other research and are simply presenting some of that in Prada without necessarily making it explicit. There’s the idea that there is an entirely different world there.

“It’s also very interesting to show in New York such a very forward-looking and really enthusiastic culture like China,” said Koolhaas.

However, the goal isn’t just to transport shoppers to another country; the concept goes beyond that to incorporate cultural activities into the space. Over the last year, dance recitals, documentaries and film screenings have been held at the SoHo store, including Fischerspooner’s DVD launch and actor Fisher Stevens’ directorial debut film, “Just a Kiss.”

“Everybody wants to do things in the store,” said Prada. “We are overwhelmed with requests.”

The cultural programs are run in conjunction with Fondazione Prada, the philanthropic and cultural arm of the company.

Using the SoHo store as both a retail and cultural incubator space also affords Prada a certain amount of freedom to try new things on a smaller scale that may or may not work when implemented in hundreds of Prada stores all over the world.

“What I like about that is the idea that it’s kind of like my first store,” said Prada. “I can do things in a very spontaneous way without all the usual considerations that you have to take in mind with the big business. It’s like having a little company in the bigger company.

“We can use it as a laboratory to do things in a more free way, kind of disconnected from the other system,” said Prada. “But there is also work than can be reintroduced in other stores. I’m really focused on stores recently because you can do a beautiful show maybe and then there’s newspaper [coverage] and advertising, but in the end what people see are the stores.

“And basically I like the idea that you can transform a store into something else. You can inject so much energy, and you can do so much. It is a lot of fun.”

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