A pair of split-toe high-heeled cracked-leather boots stand against a grey background. They have thick heels and look well-worn.
Credit: Eileen Costa for The Museum at FIT via Flickr

Splitting toes and opinions

By Gabriel Wheway

Gabriel Wheway explores the controversial Margiela Tabi boot.

Constructed from chic leather panels, a chunky heel, and a distinctively hoof-like front, Maison Margiela’s unique piece of footwear has become an iconic silhouette and the fashion house’s most notable creation to date. 

This unique piece, however, was not an organic creation of Margiela. The first Tabi socks were created during the 15th century in Japan. The socks, much like the boots, have a split-toe front, designed to be worn with traditional thonged sandals and a kimono. 1921 saw the sock evolve into a Jika-Tabi: a rubber-sole shoe protecting the feet of manual labourers. Metal closures secure the top of the shoe as an innovative fastening. Ishibashi’s original design is closest to the Margiela silhouette yet was designed for functionality rather than a high-end aesthetic. This functional workman’s shoe, 67 years later, would be introduced to the world of high fashion through the expert scope of Martin Margiela. 

The initial idea was rejected by cobblers in 1988, yet one Italian craftsman, Mr Zagato, was inspired by the unique structure of the shoe and created a limited number of pieces for Margiela’s 1989 show. His models strutted down the runway wearing white lab coats dripping in red paint, while the Tabis left a distinct trail of split-toe footprints. This ingenious presentation caused Margiela to be bombarded with clients requesting the Tabis to be reproduced in multiple colours and different materials. He did so. 

“Tabis are, by far, one of the most controversial and examined everyday boots in the fashion industry to this day.”

A 20-year-old Raf Simons snuck into the Tabis’ debut show in 1989 and “was moved to tears” by the design. Such an emotional response from such an influential designer only meant one thing: these boots were going to be a hit. Since then, the Tabi has become a staple of the Margiela fashion house. The shoe itself has been released through many different patterns and colourways and has, importantly, become unisex. 

Yet this early commendation has since become a polarizing topic for fashion critics and high-end shoe-wearers alike. Margiela Tabis are, by far, one of the most controversial and examined everyday boots in the fashion industry to this day. It really is due to the design and creating the most divisive item in one’s wardrobe regardless of the observer. From staring strangers, to a critical hypebeast, or even a gawping child on the subway pointing and waving at the oddly shaped boot, they are a compelling part of fashion’s recent exports. 

There are, notably, other versions of the Tabi in production right now. Nike adopted a similar design to create their own sneaker, the Air Rift, and Vetements even created a version last year. Neither come close to the inimitable and endearing silhouette that Margiela conceived over 30 years ago. They simply maintain a collectable allure independently. They are in fact so in-demand that people pay stupidly inflated prices on auction websites just to get their hands on a new colourway. The obsession with these glorified shoes is relentless and rightly so. 

No shoe comes as close to giving the illusion of a barefoot resting on a heel. A chunky yet narrow heel supports the traditionally masculine leather and Margiela even kept the original clasps he discovered on traditional Japanese footwear. There has never been such an idealistic theatre over a pair of shoes. The traditional conception was vital to its success. Margiela took something traditional, tweaked it slightly and created something so familiar, yet so strange; this undoubtedly sent fashionistas into an aesthetic entrancement. Whether you find them charming or pretentious, or even bulbously ugly, the Tabis will transcend and continue to violate, yet supersede, the expectations of the fashion world. The unusual is truly beautiful in this sense. 


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