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The Sweep of an Elegant Toe: Comme il faut, Buenos Aires

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Argentina has seldom looked with kindness 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.

Alicia Muñiz and Raquel Coltrinari are the owners of Comme il Faut, an eight 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 at a price of about one hundred ten dollars a pair, their shoes have quickly become the shoes for serious tango dancers.

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.

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 Comme il faut 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.

Ms. Muñiz and Ms. Coltrinari are both ardent tango dancers, and a few years ago both were having trouble with their shoes. They could not 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. "Many of the highest quality shoes, like Ferragamo, Mark Jacobs Miu Miu, they're made for appearance, not for comfort," Ms. Muñiz says. "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."

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."

The most striking aspect of Comme il faut's rise as a business is that in the beginning 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 Mantiñan 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.

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.

The woman agrees with her husband -- very happily -- and nods to Ms. Coltrinari to wrap them all up.

"You see how it is," Ms. Muñiz continues, "women's shoes are 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!"

Beatrice Bowles, a San Francisco writer who has been dancing tango for nine years with an intensity that humbles most Buenos Aires women who know her, says that "sure, I can spend nine 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?

Ms. Bowles 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."

Comme il faut: Arenales 1239, door 3, apt. M, Rues des Artisans, Buenos Aires, Argentina