Delicately Heinous: The Unlikely Success of the Margiela Tabi
The widespread derision sparked by the multi-toed Vibram FiveFinger running shoes (not to mention the cloud of taboo surrounding foot fetishes at large) suggests that within Western culture, there is a strange and persistent shame of feet. Defying conventional taste, Martin Margiela sent split-toed boots down the paint-doused runway in his 1988 debut collection. The following season, the runway was transformed by tracks of cleft footprints, metaphorically marking the strong impression these boots would make upon the future of the label. The longevity of his Tabi boot in an unforgiving market remains as puzzling as it is spectacular.
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The shoe was never conceived to be purposefully iconic—its lifespan was extended out of budgetary necessity rather than artistic vision. At the beginning of his career, Margiela lived the stark reality of many fresh-from-fashion-school graduates. Lacking the funds to create a new shoe form for each season, he turned to recycling the Tabi, adding embellishments to match new collections. Thus, an inherently conceptual shoe was forced into becoming a versatile season staple as Margiela inadvertently began the label’s Tabi tradition. Contrary to its budget-minded beginnings, the Tabi boot is now touted as a symbol of luxury (with a $1,000 price tag to match) and a flagrant rejection of stereotypical feminine beauty. “Buying Margiela Tabi boots is a real turning point in feeling like a strong independent woman,” tweeted Lou Stoppard, editor of SHOWstudio, in July. “Totally man repelling in every way.”
The Tabi boot’s icon status is deeply paradoxical—for those who admire the avant-garde, the Tabi boot is almost unequivocally agreed upon as a holy grail shoe. To those who are more conventional in their fashion senses, the split toe box is bizarre, if not completely repulsive. Iterations of the Tabi have sent industry insiders, forum-browsing home enthusiasts and in-the-know celebrities, from Björk to Sarah Jessica Parker, lusting after collectable pairs. Despite its niche cult status, the Tabi has been spared no mockery, undergoing the same public flogging as most multi-toed footwear. Snide comments on social media go as far as to equate the shoe’s design to a camel toe. “Goodbye world, this is nasty,” commented one user on the Maison Margiela Instagram account’s photo of a new Tabi variation for Pre-Fall 2017, a knee-high boot with a column-like folded shaft.
Split-toe footwear, however appalling to the modern West, is nothing new. Japanese tabi socks are documented as far back as the 15th century. By more closely resembling being barefoot, the tabi’s split design is thought to promote balance as it enables the wearer to feel the ground more evenly. Jika-tabi, rubber-soled outdoor versions of the sock, emerged in the 20th century as work shoes and continue to be worn in some professions. Maison Margiela is not the only brand with the idea to riff on tabi footwear: Kyoto-based label SOU·SOU, founded in 2002, also churns out tabi-style shoes at much more approachable price points. Sharing the same rationale behind the development of jika-tabi, athletic shoe companies have released split-toed models that encourage better articulation and stability. In 1996, Nike released the Air Rift, a strapped, split-toed running shoe directly inspired by Kenyan barefoot runners. Although the Air Rift saw a slight resurgence in relevance with the health goth movement of the 2010s, split-toed athletic shoes have faced lukewarm reception as a whole.
Through the Tabi boot, Margiela demonstrates a masterful ability to pluck a shoe from its ordinary environment and re-contextualize it through a luxury fashion lens.The story behind the other famed staple in the brand’s footwear repertoire, the German Army Trainer (or GAT), also establishes this special skill. Margiela’s GATs,first introduced in the early 2000s, were essentially ‘upcycled' pairs of vintage sneakers. The first round consisted of surplus shoes that were drawn on by the studio staff, embossed with Margiela’s logo and subsequently shipped off to luxury retailers. Despite blatant references to existing footwear styles, Margiela has never claimed ownership or credited his own ingenuity; in this way, the design house has largely evaded accusations of appropriation or plagiarism.
Much of the Tabi boot’s unexpected success rests on being delicately heinous, but its ability to maintain a decades-long grip on fashion with such a polarizing design remains an enigma. To the Western consumer, the boot provides a fresh shock of exoticism—a shoe that is capable of being both alluring and alien. Margiela’s continual refreshing of the Tabi style allowed for the boot to carve out a distinct identity for itself. @margielatab1, an Instagram account dedicated to archiving every version of the shoe, put it best: “The Tabi never got old or boring, but rather more exciting. Each style was fresh, as if a totally new shoe in itself. The Tabi was never ‘on trend.’ Not popular enough to suddenly fall, and not unpopular enough to die.” With the Tabi’s 30-year anniversary approaching, neither the shoe nor the demand for them shows any sign of slowing down.