Argentina has seldom looked kindly upon business innovation — and especially manufacturing innovation — because of a pervasive opinion in the country that things not made in Europe are of second- or even third-rate quality and value. Huge land grants to those who'd brought off the Spanish conquest, and the centuries-long reliance on those lands — and the Indians who lived on them — as the principal source of income for the upper classes, made manufacturing unnecessary.
From the moment the first conquistadores landed on Argentine soil, European products began flowing into the territory. The kind of technical and business innovation that became second nature to the North Americans never really occurred to the Argentines. Spanish, French, Italian and English products seemed just too fine to be replaced by anything the locals could do, and those products flowed into Argentina to fill the mansions and estancias of the oligarchs. Reliance on foreign commercial partnerships and foreign capital continued into current times, when little that is manufactured in Argentina can be found in any of the stores.
Alicia Muñiz and Raquel Coltrinari are the owners of Comme il Faut, a six-year-old Buenos Aires company specializing in the design and manufacture of extremely elegant women's shoes, and they are defying that historical tide. They make shoes for tango, and their shoes have quickly become the shoes for serious tango dancers. Women of fashion who don't dance but who do want comfortable shoes of world-class design to accompany their evening wear, who would more regularly wear Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik, are coming to Comme il Faut as well.
All this at a price of about one hundred ten dollars a pair.
Elaine Sirois-Lucha, a San Francisco fashion consultant who is an accomplished dancer of Argentine tango, took less than an hour one day recently to buy fourteen pairs of shoes from Comme il Faut's little shop located in the exclusive Barrio Norte district of Buenos Aires.
"If I could have taken more, I would have," she says. "But I bought everything they showed me, and that particular day they didn't have any more of my size in stock."
Altogether Ms. Sirois-Lucha owns twenty-four pairs of Comme il Faut shoes.
To get to Comme il Faut, you stroll up the very tony tree-lined Calle Arenales and turn into a narrow passageway, bright with sunlight reflected from its high white walls. Most of the shops on either side of the passage are reached by narrow internal stairways, although there is a very fashionable art gallery on the ground level. Comme il Faut is at the far end of the passage on the left, on the second floor.
If you've heard of this company, chances are that the description has bordered on the ecstatic, so popular are these shoes among the tango crowd. But when you arrive at the showroom, its stark simplicity comes as a great surprise. You stand in a gloomy stairwell and knock at the door. A small square peephole opens at eye level, and you identify yourself as an interested shopper. You wonder if this is a speakeasy. The door opens and you enter a high-ceilinged white room with several comfortable chairs, a desk, a zebra skin rug on the floor, mirrors on two walls, Ms. Muñiz and Ms. Coltrinari and a bevy of enchanted customers trying on shoes, comparing purchases, offering advice to each other. The shoes are scattered everywhere across the floor, objects of conversation for everyone in the store. And they are from everywhere. "The shop is a Tower of Babel of languages," Ms. Coltrinari says. "All by word of mouth from all over the world." As you speak with the owners about their company, they are making sales right and left. I interviewed them for about an hour, and more than two dozen pairs of shoes were sold during the conversation.
As far as I could see, this is the way business should be.
Indeed Comme il Faut is the French phrase for "the way it should be," an utterance that is usually delivered in Paris with a shrug of the shoulders, the wave of a hand, and a tone of resignation and sophisticated irony. It happens that the phrase is also the title of a beloved Argentine tango by Eduardo Ariolas, whose father was a Frenchman.
Ms. Muñiz and Ms. Coltrinari are both ardent tango dancers, and a few years ago both were having trouble with their shoes. They couldn't get the proper comfort and support from the dance shoes they were buying, despite the fact that those shoes were coming from France and Italy, the very centers of shoe design, and at a very hefty price. "But not every shoe that is well made is appropriate to dancing," Ms. Muñiz says. "Many of the highest quality shoes, like Ferragamo, Mark Jacobs, Miu Miu, they're made for appearance, not for comfort. I thought that for tango it would be more appropriate to design for comfort first and then for appearance. My feet hurt. So basically I went into business in order to liberate myself."
Women who buy from Comme il Faut applaud the comfort that the shoes provide while they're dancing. But the shoes are also instantly recognizable to almost any tanguera anywhere in the world because of their daring design. "No, there was no tradition of design in my family," Ms. Muñiz says. "But I began thinking about what a shoe needed in order to succeed as a great tango shoe. Beauty is an absolute must! But first there was comfort, and one day I met an Italian here in Buenos Aires who had learned to do shoe patterns in Italy. He taught me."
The elegant design concept remains critical, though. Ms. Sirois-Lucha says, "What you do with your feet is the language of tango. Feet that speak with each other in the dance cause the dance to be beautiful. A pretty shoe that holds to the foot properly will give you a pretty foot, and if you have a pretty foot you'll use it as an expression of your dance."
Ms. Muñiz describes the process she developed for her first designs. "I experimented for one year designing lasts and heels that were comfortable for me. There were thirty or more attempts, and the issue was that the support had to be exact to the curve of the foot. Finally when I got the shape I wanted, I designed my first pair, and those are the shoes I wore to my own wedding."
This was the modest beginning of Comme il Faut. A striking aspect of that beginning is that it defied all business school models for starting a new venture. For one, no venture capital. No capital at all, really. No business plan. No surveys to determine how much of a market there was. No previous business experience. "I was the most important customer I had," Ms. Muñiz smiles. "I was designing shoes simply for myself."
Her friend and fellow dancer Raquel Coltrinari joined her in business shortly thereafter. "At that time the business was in my house," Ms. Muñiz says. "We had a separate workshop where we were making the shoes — it's always been that way — but we were selling them out of my living room. The trouble was that very soon, there were twenty women in my living room almost every hour of the day. And eventually some rather famous ones in tango began coming ... Graciela Gonzalez, especially. But Alejandra Mantinan as well. Geraldine Rojas, who was in Robert Duvall's film Assassination Tango ..." Ms. Muñiz mentions several other names: Nora Dinzelbacher, Mariela Franganillo — a gallery of tango dancers with world-wide reputations.
"Even Robert Duvall came to our shop," she says. Duvall, a noted aficionado of tango, had heard of them and wanted to see what was happening. "A lot of men have asked me when we'll start making shoes for them. We'd like to do that, but now..."
Ms. Muñiz looks around the shop. One woman, a bank manager from London, has eleven pairs of shoes at her feet and is debating with her husband how many she should buy. Pink silk. Lacquer-like blacks and greys. Fire-like golds. Wine reds. Three inch heels. Four inch heels. Green satins. Blue silk ribbons. He says she should buy them all.
"Just now we don't have time for the men," Ms. Muñiz says.
The woman agrees with her husband — very happily — and nods to Ms. Coltrinari to wrap them all up.
"But also," Ms. Muñiz continues, "women's shoes are more fun. There's no limit to the elegance in a woman's shoe."
An essential element in the beauty of these shoes is the fabrics from which they are made. Ms. Muñiz and Ms. Coltrinari make periodic trips to the fairs in Milan, Bologna, Paris, and other centers, where they can find the most daring and highest quality fabrics and leathers for their designs. One wonders how they have time to do all that and run the shop on a day-to-day basis. "Yes, well, it wasn't born a business," Ms. Coltrinari says. "But when we decided to make it into a business, the business began immediately to pursue us!"
My amor Beatrice Bowles, a Red Room writer who has been dancing tango for seven years with an intensity that humbles most Buenos Aires women who know her, says that "sure, I can spend six hundred dollars on a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, but what's that going to get me? They're beautiful. Among the most beautiful. But I couldn't dance a step in them. I can walk in them and all of my friends will tell me how wonderful I look. But if I have to dance, I want Comme il Faut."
Then these Argentine shoes would make fine shoes for any elegant woman, whether she danced or not?
Bea is unequivocal in her response.
"I think a woman at an important party will want to be seen in these because they're so beautiful. She'll also have a smile on her face because she isn't being besieged by inflamed metatarsals, as she would be in other shoes."
Ms. Muniz adds that "no woman needs more than one pair of shoes. But in the question of women and of shoes, the phrase 'to need' lacks a certain ... feeling! I myself have more than three hundred pairs of shoes. I display them for myself on glass shelves in my home, with mirrors behind them. I love shoes, and I especially love that we make them!"
She surveys the showroom, still cluttered with shoes all akimbo everywhere and more than a few women who want to buy.
"And that we're making them here in Argentina."
(Note: If you can't get to Buenos Aires any time soon, Comme il faut shoes are sold in the United States through Jennifer Bratt.)
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