History behind the hype: The Tabi, Margiela’s split-toe shoes

Updated on January 9 2018

Somewhere distant from a runway, Martin Margiela the man, is possibly navigating his way through the streets of Paris. A 60-year-old pedestrian, walking unrecognised by even the most fashion-woke of passersby, having long since renounced the industry and the label bearing his name.

Yet on the runways of Paris Fashion Week, the seminal designer’s spirit lives on. It still looms larger than ever, via Margiela studio-trained Demna Gvasalia and the brands he helm: Vetements and Balenciaga. Gvasalia’s success in tapping into the irreverent sensibility of Margiela has other labels clamouring to jump on the bandwagon.

Margiela-ism is once again religiously revelled. And the storied Tabi boot, too, is sharing the limelight.

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As the Birkin bag is to Hermès and the red box to Supreme, so is the awkward-looking Tabi boot synonymous to the revered house of Maison Margiela. Not many would give these split-toe footwear a spin — but as with everything Margiela-made, that’s the point. It’s not made for everyone.

tabi boot lasts
Left: Lasts for the Tabi boots. Right: The Tabi boots covered in graffiti by fans at the Palais Galliera in 1991.

The genesis

The Tabi’s roots date back to 15th century Japan, a time when the island nation began importing cotton from China. Mass production of socks was enabled, and in came the tabi sock. It was developed with divided toes to be worn with the country’s traditional thonged sandals and kimonos. As it flourished in the subsequent years, the colours of the tabi sock were soon regulated to reflect Japan’s hierarchical societal status.

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Awed by Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s design ethos, then-young Martin Margiela came up with an idea to design an avant-garde boot named after its Japanese sock predecessor. The cloven-hoof Tabi became a defining part of Margiela’s humble beginning; his salad day creation years before his first-ever fashion show.

tabi pre spring 2018
The Tabi, re-created for Pre-Spring 2018 by John Galliano in a stiletto-pump silhouette.

The first pair

Then in 1983, Antwerp’s retail fashion pioneers Geert Bruloot and Eddy Michiels opened the now-famous Cocodrillo boutique. Their sole intention was to exhibit pieces that thrilled them. So naturally, when Martin Margiela turned up at their store in Antwerp, with a model of the toe-dividing Tabi, it was a match made in heaven. The duo went to his apartment the very same evening and immediately bought stock.

“My inspiration was still very ‘academic’ in those days,” Margiela explained to Bruloot in a rare interview in 2015’s Footprint: The Track of Shoes in Fashion book. “Very British, 1900s, masculine shoe styles on feminine lasts, with high heels that looked chunky seen from the side and quite narrow seen from the back. The chosen leather, assembly and finishing were as those used in traditional footwear for men.” And the Tabi’s first in-store buyer? Designer Ann Demeulemeester of the Antwerp Six fame.

margiela tabi
Maison Martin Margiela’s inaugural Spring/Summer 1989 show, featuring blood-red Tabi footprints.

The paint-splattering debut

In the summer of 1988 at Paris’ Café de la Gare, Margiela staged his inaugural womenswear collection, the Spring/Summer 1989. It was a show bordering on art performance: Models drenched in red paint paraded with veiled faces on a catwalk made of cotton. Worn on the feet of these models were the Tabi boots rendered in cylindrical heels, leaving their blood-red footprints visible on the white catwalk.

Martin Margiela knew it was the most important footprint of his career: “I thought the audience should notice the new footwear. And what would be more evident than its footprint?” Margiela later turned this first, stained runway — covered with the steps of the models — into a waistcoat which became the opening look of his next show, held together by brown scotch tape (hi, Raf Simons). Since then on, the Tabi shoe has become one of fashion’s most iconic pieces of all time.

tabi maison martin margiela
The ‘Topless’ Tabi from Maison Martin Margiela Spring/Summer 1996.

50 shades of Tabis

Ever since the debut, the Tabi underwent numerous customisations. Its recurrence within Margiela’s collections was initially borne of necessity. “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,” Margiela told Brulot. “But after several collections people started asking for them. And they wanted more… and they didn’t stop asking, thank God!”

In fact, it was literally the same shoes that were used in the Spring/Summer 1990 collection; as Margiela explained, “Because we could not afford new shoes, I put wall paint over my first collection to give it the same new feel as we did with everything else in our showroom.”

The Tabi became so synonymous to the house that even after Martin Margiela walked off unannounced into the sunset after his 20th anniversary show in September 2008, the hoof silhouette is still reiterated in each season’s footwear assortment.

margiela tabi sandal
The Margiela-approved way to wear the ‘Topless’ Tabi sandals: Strapping them on with duct tapes.

Margiela made sandals out of it. He made flat shoes, casual shoes, more elegant shoes. John Galliano, who assumed the creative mantle of the house in 2015, also paid homage by sending down paint-smeared versions down the Artisanal Couture Spring 2017 runway earlier this year.

But perhaps, the most notable adaptation was the ‘Topless’ Tabi from Margiela’s Spring/Summer 1996 collection. They were bare heels, without straps, tops or fastenings at all. The only way to wear ’em? The Margiela way, of course: B.Y.O. tape.

tabi shoes linda loppa
A display of Linda Loppa’s personal collection of Tabi shoes at MoMA.

The Tabi wearers

Martin Margiela spent a good deal of time in finding the ideal balance between the toe, the high heel, and the proportions of the shoe.

So how does it feel to wear the Tabi? Fashion educator extraordinaire Linda Loppa, the influential Belgian tutor who put Antwerp’s progressive style apex on the map and a self-professed collector of the Tabi, vividly described: “The tabi shoes make you feel a bit different. Your attitude, your pose your way of walking, of thinking probably also is different. I feel like a statue, part of a complete silhouette that is different from whatever I saw before.”

It’s true that only the bold and brave can pull off the slight, yet over-the-top separation of the toe. Think of Glen Luchford’s now-iconic photo of Björk, who was also an early Margiela fan, strapping on her pink leather Tabi pumps before her performance in 1995 (pictured above as main image of article). Or Mark Borthwick’s numerous snaps of an adolescent Chloë Sevigny by the beach, sporting Margiela garments, including a pair of black Tabi styled with an anklet.

byronesque tabi margiela poster
Byronesque’s poster for the Margiela pop-up, which was originally meant to be held in one of Paris’ last remaining adult cinema.

The Tabi’s prevailing appeal of ugly beauty

Many find the idea of a cloven-toe psychologically unsettling. In 2009, Sarah Jessica Parker notoriously wore the Tabi out in New York only to be digitally harassed by an unapologetic stream of repelled comments (“Gag!”, “A true camel toe”, et al.). Still, although celebrities have avoided wearing it ever since, the fashion set’s love affair with the Tabi blazes on.

Earlier this year in March and in tandem with Paris Fashion Week’s, the revolutionary vintage retailer app Byronesque held a Margiela pop-up sale in a rented shopfront on a side street in the Second Arrondissement. Racks of vintage Margiela were wheeled out, and curious in-the-know shoppers were hungrily pawing them between shows.

Then there’s @margielatab1, the Instagram account dedicated to archiving the shoe’s resonance in fashion for the past 28 years. Its owner chooses to remain as anonymous as the designer they admire, while satiating our love for all things archive Margiela. 2017 also saw the release of We Margiela, an incisive documentary on the ever-mysterious persona of the Margiela collective, which also delves into the making of the Tabi.

tabi boot byronesque
A pair of vintage Tabi boots that were offered for sale in Paris.

Martin Margiela himself justified fashion’s long-standing obsession over his creation’s ugly-chic appeal in his interview with Bruloot: “It’s recognisable and it has been there for more than 25 years now — it’s there, and it still goes on, and it has never been copied. It’s an incredible story.”

From a pious wearer’s point-of-view, the experience of braving the weird and wonderful Tabi can only be described with a confection of adjectives. “You feel a little bit animalistic because of that split of the toes. When I was wearing them people were a little bit shocked and skeptical,” Linda Loppa mused. “Is it beautiful? Is it scary? Is it aesthetically interesting?”

And perhaps, that’s the secret behind its brilliance. The Tabi makes you feel everything all at once. Just by the simple cleft of a toe.

(Main image: Glen Luchford; featured image: @margielatab1)