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It’s the split-toe shoe with a cult-like following; we explore the esoteric allure of the strange and wonderful Tabi

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There are few objects of fashion that divide opinion as vehemently as the Margiela Tabi. Recognisable only to those in the know, and prompting everything from repulsion to puzzlement from everyone else, the split-toe shoe has garnered a cult following of cloven-hoofed fans.

At just 35 years old, Margiela’s Tabi shoe may be one of our youngest History of the Hero subjects, but its namesake dates back six centuries – to 15th century Japan. With the import of Indian cotton came the invention of the tabi sock – a split-toed creation that could be worn with thonged shoes, such as zori and geta – which, with the later addition of a rubber sole became jika-tabi, a shoe that continues to be worn by Japanese construction workers, farmers and others who work outdoors.

It was a trip to Japan that inspired Martin Margiela to create his own version of the tabi. It was the late 1980s and the Belgian designer – now in Paris – had left his assistant position at Jean Paul Gaultier to set up his own label, Maison Martin Margiela, and was trying to dream up a radically different shoe.

‘My memory went back to the day we went to Tokyo for the first time, when we saw street workers in their flat cotton Tabi shoes,’ he says, in the 2019 documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words. ‘I thought, OK, why shouldn’t I do a soft Tabi shoe but on a high heel? And then the idea was born.’

Realising the idea was a little trickier, with most cobblers refusing to help make the unusual shoe. Luckily, one forward-thinking craftsman, Mr Zagato, accepted the challenge and Margiela’s hooved boots were materialised in time for the designer’s inaugural Spring/Summer 1989 show. Models trotted through Paris’s Café de la Gare in lab coats and Tabis, the soles of which had been doused in red paint so they made marks upon the makeshift, white canvas ‘runway’ (later made into a vest for the Autumn/Winter ‘89 show). You couldn’t ignore them, which was precisely Margiela’s intention.

‘I thought the audience should notice the new footwear,’ he explains in the book ‘Footprint: The Track of Shoes,’ which accompanied the 2015 exhibition of the same name at MoMu Antwerp. ‘And what would be more evident than its footprint?’

This wasn’t the first time the Tabi would be painted. Due to budget constraints, Margiela repurposed unsold boots for future shows by painting them in new colours.

‘In the beginning there was no budget for a new form, so I had no other choice than to continue with [the Tabi] if I wanted shoes,’ Margiela says.

The hand-painted Tabi became so synonymous with the house that even after financial limitations ceased to be an issue, it remained an enduring motif – and one that has been homaged by Margiela’s successor and current Creative Director, John Galliano.

‘After several collections people started asking for [the Tabi],’ says Margiela. ‘And they wanted more… and they didn't stop asking, thank God.’

35 years later (and 14 years since Martin Margiela left his eponymous label), the shoe’s allure shows no sign of waning. Despite the Tabi’s propensity to divide opinion, it has a sizable fanbase. The #margielatabi hashtag has garnered 3.4 million views on TikTok, where the cloven shoe is shown off in multiples by avid Gen Z collectors who were born well after its debut. And @margielatab1, a now defunct Instagram account dedicated entirely to the cult of the Tabi, won over 46,000 followers in the five and a half years it was active.

In addition to the original ankle boot, the Tabi has been reimagined in multiple forms, including a ballet flat, loafer, knee boot, clog and trainer, most recently as part of a collaboration with Reebok. The most radical iteration? The ‘Topless’ Tabi from Spring/Summer 1996 – a sole-only shoe intended to be strapped to the foot with tape.

The Tabi is conspicuous, esoteric, a bit weird. To own a pair is to be part of a very cool club – one that counts the likes of Björk and Chloë Sevigny as members. Tabi wearers aren’t concerned with conventional beauty or sexiness but with style as an expression of art and rebellion. There’s something about a hooven shoe that transcends dress codes and trends. Sevigny has been wearing hers for three decades – with anklets and short shorts as a teen and with wide-leg denim as a 48-year-old mother.

It seems that one pair of Tabis usually begets several more. Sevigny has at least five pairs, including perspex-heeled boots and white pumps. Influencer Brittany Bathgate owns both the Mary Jane and boot versions, which she wears with everything from denim to tailored trousers. Meanwhile, fashion consultant Linda Loppa boasts a Tabi collection of five – including the mythical ‘Topless’ style – which was once displayed at New York’s MoMA.

‘The Tabi shoes make you feel a bit different. Your attitude, your pose, your way of walking, of thinking,’ she says in the audio recording that accompanied the installation. ‘I feel like a statue, part of a complete silhouette that is different from whatever I saw before.’

When considering the strange allure of Margiela’s cloven creation, the following phrase comes to mind: if you know, you know. The Tabi isn’t for everyone and if it was, it wouldn’t be as appealing.

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