The split-toe Tabi boot has become synonymous with the house of Maison Margiela since its introduction in 1988. The avant-garde boot has become a staple piece for the house, and has built up a following of cult-collectors during the years – but how did the boot actually make its way into the luxury fashion scene?
The Tabi silhouette comes from 15th century Japan, where socks were beginning to be mass produced with imported cotton from China, and featured the divided toe design crafted to be worn with traditional thonged sandals. The Tabi socks later became a symbol of a hierarchical societal status, with gold and purple socks being worn by the upper class. Commoners wore blue, and the samurai could wear any hue except the aforementioned. The design was later elevated with rubber soles for outdoor wear in the 1900s, called the “Jika-Tabi,” which are still worn today as workwear shoes, as the split-toe design promotes both balance and a clear mind, according to holistic reflexology.
After being inspired by Japanese designers like COMME des GARÇONS’ Rei Kawakubo as well as Yohji Yamamoto, on a trip to Japan with the infamous Antwerp Six, Martin Margiela adopted the tabi silhouette and brought it into the luxury fashion world. The cloven-hoof Tabi boot made its first appearance on Margiela’s runway in 1988, where models were covered in lab coats and red paint, walking down a white fabric runway, leaving a trail of split-toe footprints. The print was later used to create his next collection, where the designer crafted the fabric into a bold trench coat with tape marking the waist.
The silhouette was unconventional and unknown to the West, and became Margiela’s defining success during his humble beginnings in the industry. It later grew to become a staple in the label’s future collections for more than 30 years. “There was no budget for a new form. So I had no other choice than to continue with the style if I wanted shoes. [But] after several collections people started asking for them. And they wanted more… And they didn’t stop asking, thank God!” said the designer, following the shoe’s mainstream success. It wasn’t always easy, though. In the beginning, Margiela was forced to re-paint shoes from previous seasons that had not sold, as there was no budget to create new designs from scratch.
Martin Margiela’s Tabi design was initially introduced for women, sporting a high heel, but the original silhouette from Japan has always been unisex. It wasn’t until years after Martin’s departure from his eponymous label that the house would begin making Tabi boots for men. It has been 30 years since the introduction of the silhouette to the fashion industry, and the cloven toe has literally been causing a divide since day one.
Throughout Martin Margiela’s career, the Tabi shoe has been reinterpreted into everything from clogs and sandals, to just soles that were worn by taping them to your feet. We’ve also seen sneakers with the unique feature, thigh-high boots, ballet flats and everything in-between. There is little-to-no information about the designer’s departure, but it would have been anytime between year 2002 and 2009. Since, the silhouette has remained a key piece that has returned in every collection, taking on new materials, colors, silhouettes and shapes through current creative director John Galliano, who just renewed his contract for the label.
Martin Margiela certainly did not invent the Tabi, but he played a huge part in introducing the silhouette to the Western world. Following the shoe’s success, brands like Nike and Prada have both tried out the split-toe aesthetic, and most recently, Vetements creative director Demna Gvasalia, who worked at Maison Margiela from 2009 until 2012, debuted Tabi-inspired shoes in his Fall/Winter 2018 collection. The homage was controversial, as accounts like @diet_prada and @margielatab1 criticised the Georgian designer for the “blatant ripoff,” as well as fashion journalists condemning the design. Gvasalia later responded to the critics by stating that for him, “Margiela wasn’t a house, it was a philosophy,” and that criticism is healthy and “keeps fashion transparent.” The Tabi cult came together and proved that it is as strong as ever, and made sure to tell us that no one will ever be able to do the Tabi like Martin Margiela.
The iconic Tabi boot is 30 years old, and has undoubtedly become the label’s most recognisable design that continues to turn heads today. The split toe has polarised the entire fashion community since its inception. It causes people to stop on the street, it causes confusion, and it is as bold as anyone who wears them. There’s no doubt that the shoe has both haters and die-hard fans, and it is impossible to predict what the future of the Maison Margiela shoe will look like. But one thing is for sure – the Tabi isn’t going anywhere.