The story behind the Margiela Tabi, one of fashion’s most controversial shoes

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The Story of the Hero: The Tabi MargielasChristian Vierig – Getty Images

There are few fashion items that divide opinion as vehemently as Margiela Tabi. Recognizable only to those in the know, and arousing everything from revulsion to bewilderment in everyone else, the split-toe shoe has garnered a cult following among cloven-wearing fans.

At just 35, Margiela’s Tabi shoe may be one of our youngest subjects in the hero’s story, but its namesake dates back over 600 years to 15th-century Japan. With the importation of Indian cotton came the invention of the tabi sock – a split-toed creation that could be worn with thong 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.

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Christian Vierig – Getty Images

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 found his own label, Maison Martin Margiela, and was trying to invent a radically different shoe.

“My memory flashed back to the day we first went to Tokyo, when we saw the street workers in their flat cotton Tabi shoes,” she says, in the 2019 documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words. “I thought, OK, why shouldn’t I make a soft Tabi shoe with a high heel? And then the idea was born.”

He soon realized that the idea was a little more complicated than he first thought, with most cobblers refusing to help make the unusual shoe. Luckily, a forward-thinking craftsman, Mr. Zagato, took up the challenge and Margiela’s hoof boots were materialized in time for the designer’s inaugural spring/summer 1989 show. Models trotted around the Café de la Gare in Paris in lab coats and Tabis, the soles of which had been smeared with red paint so as to leave marks on the makeshift white canvas “runway” (later transformed into a vest for autumn / winter ’89 show). You couldn’t ignore them, which was really Margiela’s intention.

“I thought the public 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 in Antwerp. “And what could be more evident than his footprint?”

It wasn’t the first time that the Tabi had been painted. Due to budget constraints, Margiela repurposed unsold boots for future shows by painting them new colors.

“At first there was no budget for a new shape, so I had no choice but to continue [the Tabi] if you 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, paid homage by Margiela’s successor and current creative director, John Galliano.

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

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Vanni Bassetti – Getty Images

35 years later (and 14 years since Martin Margiela left his eponymous brand), the shoe’s appeal shows no signs of waning. Despite Tabi’s proclivity for divided opinion, he has a sizable fan base. The hashtag #margielatabi has garnered 3.4 million views on TikTok, where the forked shoe is being sported time and time again by avid Gen Z collectors born long after its debut. And @margielatab1, a now-defunct Instagram account devoted entirely to tabi worship, has garnered more than 46,000 followers in its five-and-a-half-year existence.

In addition to the original ankle boot, the Tabi has been reimagined in multiple guises, including a flat, moccasin, knee-high boot, clog and sneaker, most recently as part of a collaboration with Reebok. The most radical iteration? The Spring/Summer 1996 Tabi ‘Topless’ – a soled shoe intended to be taped to the foot.

Tabi is conspicuous, esoteric, a little strange. Owning a pair means being part of a very cool club, which counts among its members the likes of Björk and Chloë Sevigny. The wearer of Tabi is not concerned with conventional beauty or sensuality, but with style as an expression of art and rebellion. There is something about a hoven shoe that transcends dress codes and trends. Sevigny has been wearing hers for three decades, in anklets and shorts as a teenager and in wide-leg jeans as a 48-year-old mother.

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MEGA – Getty Images

It seems that a couple of Tabis usually generates many more. Sevigny has at least five pairs, including Perspex heeled boots and white pumps. Influencer Brittany Bathgate owns both the Mary Jane and boot version of her, which she wears with everything from denim to tailored pants. Meanwhile, fashion consultant Linda Loppa boasts a collection of five Tabis – including the iconic ‘Topless’ style – that was once on display at New York’s MoMA.

“Tabi shoes make you feel a little different. Your attitude, your pose, your way of walking, your way of thinking,” she says in the audio recording that accompanied the installation. “I feel like a statue, part of a complete silhouette that is unlike anything I’ve seen before.”

When considering the strange allure of Margiela’s split creation, the following sentence comes to mind: If you know, you know. Tabi isn’t for everyone and if it were, he wouldn’t be as attractive.

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