The History of the Tabi and Martin Margiela’s Revolt Against Tradition
At Martin Margiela’s genre-defining first collection, the deconstructionist designer shod his models in bizarre cloven-hoof appearing boots. Drenched in red paint and stomping down the runway, they left a trail of deer-like prints on the white fabric path. The Belgian designer—an honorary part of the group of graduates from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts who became known as the “Antwerp Six” (Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee, who all graduated one year after him in 1980)—told WWD at the time that he, “reacts against everything that’s chic and traditional. If you don’t revolt, then you don’t go anywhere”—and these split-toed boots appeared to be the pinnacle of avant-garde sentiment, an expression of contemptuous defiance to notions of respectable fashionable dress.
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In truth, Margiela’s boots did have a foundation in traditional dress, but that of Japan and their 400-year history of split-toed tabi socks (more can be read about the historical context of Margiela’s design here). Martin took his inspiration from their spin-off split-toe rubber-soled work booties, jika-tabi, which came into use in the early 1900s in Japan. Unlike the course burlap and soft rubber of the jika-tabi, Margiela’s were heavy leather boots with chunky heels—emphatic in their difference, which was particularly evident in the trail of red hoof-prints they left behind that first show. In a rare interview in 2015, Margiela explained to Geert Bruloot (the former owner of an Antwerp boutique known for avant-garde fashion, and later curator of Footprint–The Track of Shoes in Fashion), “I thought the audience should notice the new footwear. And what would be more evident than its footprint?"
Margiela has been described as “wanting to excavate fashion’s past,” and his interest in re-use and recycling is clearly exemplified by the opening look of his next collection (Fall/Winter 1989)—a waistcoat constructed from that hoof-print stained runway and brown scotch tape. On the model’s feet, the Tabi’s—which the New York Times reported that season as “bizarre platform boots with thonged toes.” Collection after collection the Tabi boots continued to reappear, more by necessity than choice at first—“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.” For the first few years, the same exact boots were used in each show, often covered with regular interior paint to make them look new. This continued until Margiela was introduced by Bruloot to Mr. Zagato, who was able to put the Tabi into production.
After his third collection, the Chicago Tribune stated, “Five years from now, Martin Margiela might very well be ‘Martin who?’—or Martin Margiela might be remembered as the visionary who had forecast what the clothes of the 90s would be all about by dressing models in clear plastic dry-cleaners’ bags and having them wear pointed plaster casts in place of bras.” The excitement Margiela engendered amongst the more out-there fashion faithful unfortunately did not at first result in retail sales—Bloomingdale’s ordered a sampling of all 50 looks in his second collection as his exclusive NYC outlet, yet sales were so slow they did not buy subsequently. Margiela and his Tabi’s might have been just too avant-garde for department store customers, but it quickly became apparent that his deconstructed, inside-out and flagrantly untraditional designs were very prescient of larger cultural and financial issues—as the economies in Europe and the United States slid into a recession, the over-the-top styles of the 1980s began to appear preposterous and out-of-touch. An audience member at Margiela’s Spring/Summer 1991 show remarked, “This season it’s not how to dress for a reception, but how to dress for a recession.”
While Margiela’s continual re-use of the Tabi in his shows can now be seen reflectively as masterful and the making of an icon, fashion journalists in the late 1990s and early 2000s took it as a lack of innovation; the New York Times stated in a show review in 1997, “There was precious little evolution, the same proportions with pants under skirts, the same dressmaker dummy vests… the same cloven-hoof boots he originated five years ago.” In fact, Margiela was constantly transforming that singular style—chunky heeled, slim heeled, flat, as socks (introduced in 1998), and, at its most extreme, a pair of high-heeled soles that were “sold with a roll of transparent scotch tape to attach them to your feet." The split-toed shoes and boots provided a necessary grounding to often bleak collections; Fall/Winter 1995 featured models wearing “scarves over their faces colored to match their outfits, shoes and boots, which were often shaped like cloven hoofs, and they often had swatches of dyed hair tied to their belts like half-successful headhunters.”
The raw edges, inside-out garments, purposely distressed fabrics (what Bill Cunningham coined as “deconstructivist fashion” in an article on Margiela in 1989)—when Margiela first put them on the catwalk they felt disruptive, reactionary. As he and his fellow deconstructionists were assimilated into the fashion industry, so too were these trademark elements. The artistic director of the ModeMuseum in Antwerp stated in 2008 that, “Often what you see in the mainstream today is something that Martin introduced 20 years ago, and in a shocking way. For example, the showing of unfinished clothes with frayed hems or seams on the outside, which he did years ago, are things today that are seen as quite normal.” While many of his stylistic signatures were co-opted and copied by other designers and slowly made their way down to mass-fashion, the Tabi has resolutely remained too nonconformist for such filtering down. Though Martin Margiela was quoted in 2015 as saying that the Tabi “has never been copied,” there have been a number of rifts on the style by other designers and brands. Jeremy Scott made split-toed pumps for spring/summer 1998, while more recently Demna Gvasalia showed Tabi-style boots in his Vetements Fall/Winter 2018 runway collection. Many Japanese brands have produced variations on the traditional Tabi, influence often by both Margiela’s version and streetwear, and more affordable American brands like Irregular Choice have also released split-toed footwear.
Elusive and private, Margiela has rarely been interviewed or photographed; after the brand was acquired in 2002 by OTB Group he began to slowly pull away from designing and the fashion industry, though it was not until December 2009 that he officially left his house. The phoenix-like John Galliano became creative director of Maison Martin Margiela in 2014, and has continued to recycle and reuse the Tabi as an iconic signifier of the brand. In 2018 Maison Martin Margiela introduced the Tabi for men, after what many male fashion aficionados considered a very long wait. Much has been written of the Tabi’s recent burst of popularity and ubiquity on fashionable Instagrams—with GQ even declaring it the shoe of 2019—which can most clearly be understood as the symbol of a designer’s legacy, finally accepted and praised thirty years after its birth.