Tabi or not Tabi, that is the question

The G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) or mere goat fodder? INDEX looks at an iconic design moment, Maison Margiela’s Tabi boots.

Words Sabina Sysantos

Spotting a Margiela Tabi out in the wild is like driving by a car crash. You can’t look away, even though you know you should. Emotions heightened by the sight, your fight or flight response is engaged: Do you love them or do you hate them? Are you attracted or repelled? Intrigued or outraged? Most probably everything, all at once. Margiela’s Tabi boot has been leaving both toes and opinions divided for the last three decades now. How do we even begin to comprehend a fashion item as enigmatic as the man who designed them?

Perhaps the Tabi can be best understood through the words of Martin Margiela himself. As the designer stated in 2013, “The Tabi boot is the most important footprint of my career. It’s recognisable, it still goes on after 25 years, and it has never been copied.” Except, they have been copied. Many times. Sportswear brands like Nike and Asics have their version of a split-toe shoe. Vetements has been producing split-toe ankle boots since their AW18 collection, despite Diet Prada’s attempt to get Demna Gvasalia to stop blatantly copying his former employer (Gvasalia having worked for Margiela from 2009-2012).

Although Margiela shouldn’t be one to complain, as the Tabi in itself was designed as a copy. Margiela’s Tabi boots are based off of traditional Japanese split-toe socks of the same name. Tabi socks date back as early as the 15th century, when Japan began importing cotton from China and mass-produced the garment. They were designed to be worn with traditional thonged sandals and came in different colours to indicate social status or an occasion. Around the 1900s, rubber soles were added on for outdoor activities. These are called jika-tabi, literally translating into “tabi that touches the ground”. 

After a trip to Japan with the infamous Antwerp Six, Margiela became inspired by Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto and sought out to bring the traditional silhouette into the luxury fashion world. Margiela’s Tabis first emerged in 1988, as part of his debut collection at the Café de la Gare in Paris. Models were covered in red paint and sent down a white cotton runway, leaving behind a trail of bloodied hoof prints. For the next few seasons, Margiela had no budget to make new versions of his shoes and would simply update the ones unsold from the first collection by covering them with wall paint. 

Margiela has since reimagined the split-toe silhouette in countless different styles. Extreme versions include the ‘Graffiti on Cement’ Tabi, where a limited run of 150 pairs were uniquely hand-painted and treated with silicone to create the illusion of a cement texture. Then there were the Tabis that came merely as split-toed soles, sold with a roll of transparent tape to attach them to your feet. What may be more bizarre, however, is the fact that Tabis did not come to accommodate mens’ foot sizing until 2017, nearly a decade after Martin Margiela had already left the house. 

Margiela’s Tabis have been a cult favourite throughout the designer’s entire career, and until now manage to hold the same level of fascination and bewilderment as they did when they first debuted. In today’s fashion landscape, the Tabi boot sits, itself, so comfortably among influencer it-bags and hypebeast streetwear releases that its hard to imagine they originated in a pre-internet world. They continually serve as prime Instagram fodder, and even made headlines just last year for being worn on a red carpet. Surpassing every trend and attempted successor of the last 32 years, the Tabi regenerates a newfound sense of relevance unto every generation it lives through. Love them or hate them, Margiela’s legendary “goat shoes” aren’t going anywhere. 

tabi boots
tabi boots

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