The History Of Maison Margiela’s Tabi Shoe And Its Transition To Streetwear

The History Of Maison Margiela’s Tabi Shoe And Its Transition To Streetwear

People often have a weird thing about feet...particularly, toes. Maybe that’s what makes Maison Margiela’s clove-footed Tabi shoes so polarizing, much like Vibram Five Fingers training shoes or the rainbow toe socks every middle school girl wore with flip flops in the early 2000s. But unlike toe socks, Martin Margiela’s famous design has left a remarkable footprint (pun intended) on high fashion.

The original painted canvas Maison Margiela Tabi boots from Spring 1990, now on display at The Museum at FIT. Source

And in recent years, the designer has taken it one step further by bringing the split-toe style to streetwear. Love them, hate them, or even fetishize them—you just need to own a pair. Here’s why.

The Origins of the Tabi: 15th Century Japan

Designer Martin Margiela may have brought the Tabi into fashion, but he can’t be credited with inventing the silhouette. In fact, it’s been around for a long time. The style can be dated back to 15th-century Japan, when they were worn as socks paired with traditional thong sandals.

Japanese ankle socks feature a separate stall for the big tow, drawn by David Ring for the Europeana Fashion Project.

Around the turn of the 20th century, rubber soles were added and the socks morphed into boots for Japanese workers. The “jika-tabi,” or tabi boots, are still worn in the country today. Their soft soles give workers contact with the ground while offering the agility to use their feet as an extra pair of hands.

From the Worksite to the Runway

Margiela debuted his version along with his eponymous brand at the Maison’s first show for the Spring/Summer 1989 season. For the show, models feet were drenched in red paint to accentuate the boots’ unusual footprint. “I thought the audience should notice the new footwear,” Margiela told Geert Bruloot, the first buyer to stock the shoe. “And what would be more evident than its footprint?”

In true Margiela fashion, he turned the paint-splattered runway canvas into a waistcoat that would become the opening look of the following season’s show. It was that bold disregard for the conventional that left tastemakers in awe of the shoe, which the designer considers the most monumental of his career. “It’s the Tabi boot,” he told Bruloot. “It’s recognizable 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.”

While others have attempted to design their own rendition of the shoe (Nike’s Air Rift in 1996 and Prada’s Tabi sock in 2014, to name a few), none have achieved the ubiquity of Margiela’s Tabi.

Maison Margiela’s AW19 collection and Tabi Boot styled for Wallpaper China. Source

From the Runway to the Street

In recent seasons (nearly a decade after Martin Margiela left the Maison), the label finally released a men’s Tabi. And after actor Cody Fern sported a pair on the 2019 Golden Globes red carpet, GQ was quick to declare the shoe a trend. They weren’t wrong. Once Maison Margiela released a canvas sneaker Tabi, the streetwear set was quick to catch on. Jenke Ahmed Tailly (stylist for Beyonce and Kim Kardashian) was among many of fashion’s biggest influencers to wear the style to Paris Fashion Week last month.

And, in September 2020, the label will drop a collab with Reebok for an utterly unique Tabi Instapump sneaker. Though the silhouette initially debuted before the dawn of the internet era, trend forecasters say it was destined for the Instagram age. And aside from their viral appeal, the in-person reaction will always be a head turner, á la kombucha girl on TikTok: confusion followed by intrigue and finished with a need for more.

Maison Margiela’s Low Top Tabi Sneaker for men.


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