Consider the Tabi by Maison Margiela one of fashion’s most memorable shoes. With a chunky heel, form-fitting silhouette and split-toe, it’s the kind of wardrobe pièce de résistance that intrigues even those who don’t have sartorial interests. Originally launched in the 1980s, today, it remains one of the most interesting and popular shoes in the luxury market, with celebs and fashion fans alike gravitating towards it. In 2019, the Tabi celebrated its 30th anniversary, and some could say the statement-making shoe has been experiencing even more of a renaissance ever since—with a new generation of fans sharing their love of the style on social media. Here, a brief history of the Tabi.
The Tabi Inception
Belgian designer Martin Margiela reportedly was inspired to create the Tabi after a trip to Japan. And it’s no wonder. Despite its unusual look, the split-toe style had been around for centuries, just not in the world of modern fashion. The Tabi look itself dates back as far as 15th-century in Japan—images from that time period show split-toe socks worn with the traditional platform thong sandals. The Tabi back then was based on a reflexology concept—that the separation of the big toe provided balance for a clear mind. During the 20th century, the jika-tabi was introduced, a new form of Japanese worker shoe inspired by the original Tabi sock, with a rubber silhouette. They are still worn and sold today.
The Early Days
The infamous Margiela Tabi boot first emerged at the designer’s debut fashion show in 1988. Besides the fact that the shoe made a distinct statement on its own, Margiela painted the bottoms of the soles in red paint, so an iconic hoof print was left behind as models marched down the catwalk.
Since then, the brand has not stopped producing the shoe. But it hasn’t always been that way. The designer once said, “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. But after several collections people started asking for them. And they wanted more… and they didn't stop asking, thank God,” in a rare interview for the book accompanying the 2015 exhibition Footprint - The Track of Shoes in Fashion at MoMu Antwerp.
The Tabi Transforms
The Tabi originally started as a boot, but Margiela used the split-toe silhouette on everything from sandals to flats and even open-toe mules and various kinds of sneakers. The 1990s was a time of great experimentation for the shoe. Think: baby pink Tabi mules with an ankle strap. That style is now immortalized by photographer Glen Luchford’s photo of Björk, putting them on before a concert in 1995. Once the icon of the cool, downtown New York City scene, Chloë Sevigny was also a fan of the Tabi in its various forms.
Perhaps one of his most memorable, and most extreme versions, however, is the Tabis that existed purely as soles—no straps, laces or anything else to hold them to the wearer’s feet. Debuted for the Spring 1996 collection, the only way to wear them was to stick them to one’s feet with tape.
An Icon Through the Ages
“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,” said Geert Bruloot, the first buyer to include Margiela’s Tabis in a retail store and the man behind the aforementioned 2015 Momu exhibition. And in some ways, truer words have never been spoken.
Despite other brands releasing split-toe shoes—In 1996, Nike introduced the Air Rift, with a detached toe, and Vetements did its own split-toe shoe a few years ago—none have had a lasting legacy as much as Margiela. There’s also something to be said about the way the shoe has retained its cultural influence of cool. In 2020, the shoe is hyper recognizable to those who follow fashion. It’s been revamped over and over—covered in champagne labels, metallic leather, electric blue, or fluorescent orange.
Entire Instagram accounts exist to document the life of the Tabi. Just take for example, @margielatab1, which posts photos of rare, archival Margiela Tabi boots as well as interesting ways of styling the shoe.
Recently, the Tabi was also reborn under a new collaboration with the sneaker brand, Reebok for Fall 2020. Available in classic black, or white, or black and white with blue, red and yellow details, the shoe is a mash-up of traditional elements from both brands. Reebok’s ahead-of-its-time Instapump Fury from 1994 combined with the memorable split-toe shoe create something entirely new and fresh.