Japanese born Chino Hara is the wife of Jorge Torres.
She sells Felina Shoes in New York City, often accompanying
Jorge on many of his travels operating a shoe concession
at his tango appearances.
Here is Chino's story:
I’m not sure that Chino realized, on that famous night seven years ago, that her world was about to turn around. Her routine, her plans, her studies, her future -- all changed in a matter of minutes in a New York milonga. When Jorge took her, oh so reluctant! in his arms, life as she knew it had already changed. Forever.
One of the most celebrated dancers from Argentina, Jorge Torres -- the captain of Forever Tango, a man who has taught and trained all over the world – fell madly in love with her at first sight. Chino, less than six months into tango and blissfully unaware of his fame, settled into his embrace and never decamped. Within weeks, smitten Jorge asked her to follow him for a brief visit to Buenos Aires, and she arranged to fly down accompanied by two girlfriends. (Just in case…)
It was 2004 and naturally Chino’s first stop on her tango-pilgrimage was to a new store, Comme il Faut, the very first tango-shoe maker catering to style and chic instead of just utilitarian comfort. She walked into Arenales, the stylish passage off Libertad and Santa Fe, and up one flight of stairs to the small boutique that sold what looked like the most beautiful shoes on earth. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Bring me all you have in size thirty-six, please,” she requested, and within seconds she was surrounded by white boxes from which spilled Technicolor stilettos in an extraordinary variety of styles. Wasn’t it all a woman could desire? It took her and her friends more than three hours to select the ten most perfect shoes.
An array of sublime models lay at her feet, but what to do with those incredible pairs – in different sizes -- that were being scrutinized at the same time by other customers seated across the room? Selecting had been a mind-boggling task. Excited but exhausted, Chino was ready to leave the store when a new shipment came in. So many boxes, so many new styles. How could she resist her curiosity to see what else the talented Alicia and Raquel had designed? She went back the next day and bought another ten pair. By then, of course, she needed an extra suitcase.
“This was,” she tells me, “the precise moment when I decided to start selling shoes.” Chino knew which pairs she wanted to keep for herself (a difficult decision) and consequently what to give away. She flew back to New York and summoned all her friends. The shoes simply flew off the shelves and, in a matter of hours, she sold out her collection for double the price she had paid. Woah! She was in business.
“Three months later I flew back to Argentina and bought twenty more pairs. Just size 36 and 37.” Chino points out at pictures from her first collection. “See? This black and white one almost started a real war between two eager ladies…” The result was identical: sold out. Now the New York tangueras realized that they could also ask for different sizes. The demand grew proportionally to the speed at which the news hit the various milongas and the tango community.
Felina Shoes was born. At first there was only Comme il Faut. NeoTango followed immediately afterward.
Chino’s apartment -- on Washington Street in downtown Manhattan -- turned into a showroom where shipments of about hundred shoes per months would arrive regularly. By now the tangueros were also targeted, and men of every age flocked to buy the elegant shoes that would allow them to dance much more stylishly. At this point, of course, a really big problem arose. Since Chino coveted every style she bought, every exquisite model and each divine color combination, she clearly needed to establish and enforce some kind of discipline, a set of laws she had to observe before her addiction became too unmanageable. “I decided to pick my favorite shoes but only up to thirty pairs. After that I would relinquish them,” she confesses. It worked. “Now of course it’s different,” Chino says amused. “I sell them all.”
Once again life has forced her to choose. Today, with two children and a traveling schedule worthy of an international pilot, she’s learned to limit her packing strategy. “I bring only two pair with me as all available suitcase space must be dedicated to my kids, Faline and Tao.”
“I’m just delighted to look at my shoes, they’re mine for a short time and then I let them go. I know that they’re there and that if I really wanted….” Chino lifts Faline, her beautiful girl, in her arms and smiles. Jorge, who had always wanted this name for a daughter, is also responsible for naming the company Felina. He felt he had to emphasize how a woman should be dancing tango: feline, soft, supple…
Now, in 2011, Chino has several showrooms across California and Japan, and her clientele is not limited to tango dancers. “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” I point at the tidy rows of hundreds of shoes that fill her apartment. “Tango shoes couple elegance and beauty with extraordinary comfort, as they’re clearly designed to support the weight of the body for several hours,” Chino explains. “I want to introduce them to the rest of the world. I want to market them as street fashion but, for the moment, I’m in the market research phase, analyzing Asia and the Americas.”
Her projects are intertwined with those of Jorge whose contacts stretch all over the world. “My husband is very hands-on, a great help and support. He’s always researching for new possibilities.” They travel together and when he’s teaching workshops or performing, she’s busy selling and promoting her lines.
“We like to divide our lives between Argentina, the States and Japan.” Chino has pushed Torres to spend more time in Argentina, where his recently widowed father lives and where he’s finally teaching tango to his compatriots. “Why should the Argentineans be deprived of his coaching?”
“We definitely lead a gipsy life, and quite happily!” Chino opens a box that just arrived from Buenos Aires and I, ever shoe-crazed, eye the contents, curious to see the bounty that will emerge. And I’m not disappointed: tens of multicolored pairs invade the space around us. I want to buy them all!
But now I must hear about the children of this extraordinary couple who manages to combine, apparently seamlessly, travel and family life. “At the age of three, Faline can already read and write in Japanese and English,” Chino tells me proudly. “It’s not the end of the world if she doesn’t attend school day after day; she’s very social and makes friends with great ease.” There are delicious videos posted on Facebook that prove her philosophy right, just take a look! Check out Baby Tao, looking up at his big sister. Both are dancing away… Good genes?
“Would you move to Baires?” I probe. The answer is an emphatic no, even though she loves to go there often. Whenever they fly to Argentina she tends to spend time with Jorge’s family in the countryside. “We seldom go out to milongas and unfortunately we don’t have much time for friends because Jorge works a lot. We like to see a few good shows, but otherwise he likes to be with his family.”
“Do you speak Spanish?” I enquire, maybe a little too nosy. “Hmm… my Spanish is practically non-existent!” she laughs, “but lately something funny has happened to me: Argentina makes me think of…Japan!” I can’t imagine anything more remotely different than these two countries and demand immediate explanation. “I’ve been thinking of how time flows and how things smell; it takes me back to Tokyo, to that safe heaven, Kichijoji Minami-cho, where I grew up. When the sun sets in Buenos Aires I remember my childhood, of going home to my family in the late afternoon after playing in the streets with my friends.” Congreso, her calle in BA, is a small street with little traffic, where kids can play safely. And when the sun sets everybody walks back home. A barrio is obviously a barrio, and the feeling is the same even if it translates as… kinjo!
La gente se parece en todo el mundo. People are the same the world over.