IN THE PAST TWO DECADES, SoHo in New York has gone from industrial blight to retail boom, from one of the city's poorest areas to its most chic quarter. Famed for pioneering the loft movement, in which the city's poor and homeless took over abandoned factories and converted them into squatter homes that later became among the most sought-after premises in Manhattan, it still retains a bohemian air. As a result, it is the new heart of the city's fashion elite, where the hippest people buy the smartest things at the most gorgeous places. At its uber-cool heart is Spring Street, a cobbled road that bisects the neighbourhood and boasts its coolest shops and bars. Fashion labels Anna Sui, Helmut Lang, Louis Vuitton, Costume National, Marc Jacobs and Cynthia Rowley all have shops in the area. But ground zero, at the corner of Broadway, is Prada (pictured; 575 Broadway, tel: 1 212 334 8888). Fashion and architecture collide in this cavernous, sumptuous 24,500-square-foot space, one of the most dazzling displays of a trend dubbed 'retail monumentalism'. At US$40 million (HK$312 million) the store was seen as a risk when it opened in 2001, just as the United States' economic slump began to take hold. The jury is still out on whether or not the gamble has paid off in till receipts, but in terms of raising the company's profile it has recouped the cost in spades. Now considered a tourist attraction its own right, the store will probably go down in history as the swansong shop opening of the 90s boom. Its space-age undulating floor, mirrored ceilings and wooden panels do more than draw attention to the exquisite shoes that sparsely line its walls: they eclipse them in beauty and majesty. It was probably this side-effect of such retail magnificence that prompted Apple Computers to keep the decor in its new flagship store, two blocks away between Mercer and Greene streets (103 Prince Street, tel: 1 212 226 3126), as minimal as its products. Taking the geek out of the gadget store, Apple's premises are more a celebration of the company's design prowess than a place to sell its goods. It's difficult to tell the sales counters from the display shelves. With polished pine panelling and super-clean chrome fittings, its simple, elegant design has the atmosphere of a futuristic airport - in Sweden. Slotted between these two paragons of modern living is the Mercer Kitchen, the restaurant of the painfully hip Mercer Hotel (99 Prince Street at Mercer Street, tel: 1 212 966 5454). Small, cosy and - like all things hip in this neighbourhood - minimalist, it is the hangout of supermodels and superstars from both sides of the Atlantic. With Jean-Georges Vongerichten (of the Mandarin Oriental's Vong fame) at its helm, its prices are unsurprisingly high but worthy of its reputation as one of the finest boutique hotels in the city. For less elaborate fare served with a slice of history, try Fanelli's Cafe across the road at 94 Prince Street (tel: 1 212 226 9412), which has been serving diner-style meals for generations. Like a throwback to the days of fedoras and gumshoe cops, this hole-in-the-wall bar with tin ceilings and red-and-white checked tablecloths has been around since 1847. Although it retains a spit-and-sawdust air, Fanelli's attracts the culture-hungry artistic hordes that flock to the neigh-bourhood's many galleries and exhibition spaces.