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Between Two Toes: The History of Margiela’s Cult Tabi
Arabelle Sicardi on a Shoe That Can Truly Be Called Iconic

Text: Arabelle Sicardi

I have suits with four sleeves and sideways hems, 10 leather jackets varied in color and cut, knee-high velvet boots, and still, the most commented-upon items in my closet are my Margiela tabi boots. They inspire complete strangers to stop me on the street to ask me if they’re comfortable. They compel hypebeasts to pause before getting off the train to ask me where I bought them. They force mothers to hush their children who ask me why I’m wearing such weird shoes. They’re the most divisive thing I own. Naturally, I have multiple pairs and wear them wherever I go.

Martin Margiela did not invent the tabi, but he didn’t invent a lot of his best work. His skills lay in deconstructing established forms to manifest new ideas. For the tabi, he was referencing the Japanese worker’s shoe, which traces its lineage as far back as the 15th century. Tabi began as socks. The split-toe design was thought to promote balance through the separation of the big toe—a holistic reflexology strategy that promotes a clear mind. It’s also considered to be connected to your sense of self, and it just happened to fit the thonged sandals commonly worn at the time. At first, the socks were exclusive to the upper-class due to cotton scarcity, but when trading opened with China, they became more universally worn. The colors were also limited by class initially, with the upper-class wearing purple and gold, samurai all but those, and commoners exclusively blue. Around the 1900s, rubber soles were added on for outdoor activities, and these, called jika-tabi, are still worn as worker’s shoes today.

There are other modern fashion versions of the tabi in production right now. SOU-SOU, a Kyoto label founded in 2002, sells them in an endless array of patterns and colors at a fraction of the price of Margiela’s. Nike has their own sneaker version: the Air Rift. Vetements, the label designed by former Margiela employee Demna Gvasalia, sent their own down the runway last year. But none of those versions, nor any others, attract the attention of Margiela’s. Nor are any really comparable to the extent that you could call them an affordable dupe. The Margiela tabi have a collectible allure all their own. They are in-demand enough that people buy them off auction websites they use through Google Translate, often for hugely inflated prices long after certain colorways cease to be sold in stores. Why are we so obsessed with these glorified hooves?

Martin Margiela wanted a shoe that gave the illusion of a bare foot resting on a heel. The heel is chunky and high from the side but narrow from the front, and the leather was a traditionally masculine choice. The clasps that run up the inner part of the boots were references to the original design he pulled from—he had just come back from a trip to Japan when he designed his own. Prior to founding his own label in 1988, Margiela had worked for Jean Paul Gaultier, and before that had his own line of shoes. When it came time to create footwear for the first Maison Martin Margiela collection, though, no cobbler would take his tabi design on—the split toe was too radical for traditional workshops. As fate would have it, it was Geert Bruloot, the first retailer who stocked Margiela’s pre-Gaultier shoes at his Antwerp boutique Cocodrillo, who would introduce him to his future cobbler: an Italian craftsman named Mr. Zagato. According to Bruloot, he showed Mr. Zagato the tabi prototype over dinner, and the cobbler’s eyes lit up.

Those tabi were on the very first model Margiela sent out in his debut show in 1988. She walked through the Café de la Gare in Paris at 4:40 PM with ribbons on her cuffs, tabi on her feet, and no shirt on. Other models followed down the makeshift runway in flesh-colored mesh with tattoo illustrations in reference to French Polynesian artwork and chiffon veils paired with bright red toenails, some of them wearing no shoes at all. Margiela used the body as another fabric to play with and made absence as effective a design choice as the excess displayed by the dominant labels of that era. The finale culminated in what has since become legend: the models emerged in white lab coats identical to those Margiela’s team wore, with their shoes dipped in red paint, leaving strange, red markings on the runway—not quite footprints, not quite hoofprints. In one of his rare interviews on the subject—for an exhibition at Antwerp’s MoMu co-curated by Bruloot called “Foot Print: The Tracks of Shoes in Fashion”—Margiela explains this theatrical decision like so: "I thought the audience should notice the new footwear. And what would be more evident than its footprint?”

“Margiela used the body as another fabric to play with.”

Margiela introduced the fashion industry to the uncanny valley in his debut. Though the uncanny valley repulsion response is usually in reference to robotics that look just a little too much like humans, Margiela induced it with a comparatively low-tech pair of shoes. Tabi look similar enough to classic boots to not be the first thing you see in an outfit, but upon closer inspection, they become the main object of fascination and demand your judgement. The colorways contribute to the confusion: a beige leather pair might look so much like fleshy, cloven hooves that they repulse you, to say nothing of the alienation you might experience—and eventually come to love—from seeing a high-shine metallic or a patterned one.

Margiela would take that tabi-painted runway and re-use it for his next show—he turned it into a waistcoat held together by brown scotch tape. This was as much a budgetary decision as a design ethos: make the familiar strange again and the strange beautiful; making the most of what you’ve got and turning it into something new. Margiela’s delight in inventive thriftiness is a big part of what made the brand so thrilling when it debuted. He explained to Bruloot that, "In the beginning there was no budget for a new form. So I had no other choice than to continue with [the tabi 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!”

His second show, for Fall/Winter 1989, was as scrappy, brazen, and beautiful as the first, in all the little details, and it, too, would go down in fashion history. Set in a playground on the outskirts of Paris people scaled the walls to get in and neighborhood children lined the front row, cheering for the models. One witness said at a certain point, you couldn’t tell who was a neighbor and who was an editor— everyone was mixed up and excited to bear witness. The children ended up joining the models down the runway, marching in step with the model’s recycled, revisited tabi. Raf Simons snuck in with Walter von Beirendonck and was moved to tears. It’s one of the moments that made Raf Simons want to design himself.

Such romantic theater over a pair of shoes and sheer, frayed clothes. Margiela took a traditional idea, changed it slightly, and our reaction to processing something so familiar and so strange infected us. People love the oddness of Margiela’s tabi like a precious, open secret, but they’re just as likely to be confused by their ugliness and perplexed by other people’s devotion to them. You might find them charming or you might find them pretentious. The thing is, you’re always in one of these categories. Tabi don’t compel apathy—they force you to feel, and it is rare that a garment can provoke these kinds of emotions. They draw reactions out of strangers and make friends for you, because when you see someone else wearing them, you know they love something you love, too. They have become shorthand for a specific philosophy in fashion: that something doesn’t need to be beautiful to be moving, that the unusual can be beautiful, and that the smallest details can lead to the most enduring results.

Arabelle Sicardi is a beauty and fashion writer. They have work in i-D, Allure, TeenVOGUE and more.