A Split Toe Odyssey: The History of the Tabi
A Split Toe Odyssey: The History of the Tabi
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date August 30, 2018
“The Tabi boot is the most important footprint of my career: it’s recognisable, it still goes on after 25 years, and it has never been copied.” Arguably the most famous quote from the reclusive Martin Margiela, his high-regard for the infamous Tabi speaks volumes—especially when considering his immense archive and enduring influence. When the split-toed footwear debuted during Margiela’s inaugural Spring/Summer 1989 runway show, the clove toed shoe shocked the fashion world to its core. Yet, season after season, the silhouette returned and despite reservations continued to sell.
While the Tabi is deeply intertwined with Margiela’s legacy, to claim that the Tabi is wholly unique is a drastic overstatement. Not only have others explored the concept of split-toed footwear, but the Tabi itself precedes Margiela by hundreds of years. The Tabi dates back to the 15th century, when Japan began importing cotton from China. The introduction of the raw material gave birth to a slew of new products, including socks. At the time the Geta—a wooden platform sandal with a leather thong strap—was footwear of choice, and new socks had to accommodate its structure. The result was the creation of an ankle height cotton sock with a separation between the big toe and the rest of the foot—the original Tabi.
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The split-toed sock became a mainstay of Japanese wardrobes throughout the Edo period. Governed by the conventions of feudal Japan’s social hierarchy, Tabi colors were emblematic of position and power. Peasants wore indigo blue on a day-to-day basis, whereas white was saved for special occasion. Samurai, given their warrior status, were allowed to wear any color they saw fit–apart from purple or gold, reserved for nobility.
Considerably more complex than a traditional Western sock, Tabi were constructed from three distinct pieces of fabric, two forming the upper —traditionally sewn together above the toe gap and left open at the top of the front or rear— and a third for the sole. This unique construction paved the way for Tabi to become what they are best known for in fashion circles: footwear proper.
Mass-produced rubber led to the birth of Jika-Tabi: Tabi that made contact with the ground. First introduced by Tokujirō Ishibashi, whose family had a long history in the rubber business— his brother, Shōjirō founded Bridgestone tires—Ishibashi’s Jika-Tabi is more akin to the Western approximation of the shoe. Unlike its fashion counterpart, the Jika-Tabi was a work shoe, designed for construction, farmers, rickshaw drivers and other manual laborers. In fact, the split-toe was thought to aid in mobility and considered more agile.
Prior to World War II, Japan maintained an isolationist policy—“sakoku”—however during and following the war Westerners were suddenly exposed to Japanese culture, the Tabi included. In the Pacific theatre, Australian soldiers were in awe of the Japanese they opposed, particularly the split-toed boots the Japanese soldiers were wearing. Unfortunately, the uniqueness of the Jika-Tabi’s footprint made it easy for the Australians to track Japanese soldiers as they retreated —an oversight that ultimately proved to far outweigh the added agility.
After WWII, the Tabi continued to influence the Western Hemisphere when, in 1951, Shigeki Tanaka won the Boston Marathon wearing a pair of Tabi-inspired Onitsuka running shoes. Despite Tanaka’s success, the shoes were considered an oddity in the United States, and failed to inspire any immediate imitations.
For decades, all was quiet on the Tabi front outside of Japan —where the Jika-Tabi remained a workplace stalwart and Tabi socks continued to be commonplace— until Martin Margiela’s seminal fashion show in 1988. Since Tabi were relatively unknown outside Japan, the Tabi Boot was referential in a very discreet wa —like much of the designer’s work, particularly in footwear— that only the most attuned observers could appreciate. To draw attention to the boots, Margiela doused the models in red paint before stepping onto the runway, leaving a trail of red cloven-hoof footprints in their wake. His next runway show, Fall/Winter 1989, opened with a waistcoat fashioned from the Tabi-stained runway material, solidifying the boot’s standing as central to Margiela’s work.
The Tabi’s ubiquity within Margiela’s ouvre is in large part due to the fact that it was the first shoe he introduced. The designer told Geert Bruloot—the first buyer to ever stock the shoe—that, in the years after debuting his eponymous collection, “there was no budget for a new form, [there was] no other choice than to continue with [the Tabi style].” Margiela was even forced to repaint Tabi boots that had already been produced, but not sold, for some of those early collections in 1989 and 1990. Eventually Margiela managed to expand his footwear offering and push the Tabi concept further, offering silhouettes other than ankle-height boots, including split-toe sneakers, sandals, heels and, in true Margiela fashion, soles that attached to the feet using packing tape.
Despite the referential nature of Margiela’s work, there were important differences between the traditional Japanese Tabi and the Belgian designer’s work. While the original Tabi was unisex—both in feudal and contemporary Japan—Margiela’s Tabi boots and other creations were geared towards women. It wasn’t until recently, nearly a decade since Margiela left his Maison, that the label introduced Tabi boots designed specifically for men, with a luxurious leather take on the Jika-Tabi and a Tabi German Army Trainer Replica.
The Tabi is often considered the design that made Margiela’s career. But it wasn’t long after the first Margiela Tabi boots debuted that another giant, this one in the sports world, introduced a new split-toed footwear silhouette. In 1996, Nike introduced the Air Rift, which, despite having a “decoupled toe” like the Tabi, was inspired by Kenyan runners —who perfected their craft barefoot— rather than traditional Japanese footwear. The sandal-shoe hybrid was a byproduct of Nike’s running division and marked the Portland-based company’s first attempt at creating shoes that allowed free and natural motion, a philosophy that would ultimately culminate with projects like the Free Run.
Despite Margiela’s Tabi enjoying continued success for over two decades, Nike’s Air Rift was poorly received. The marketing department devoted barely any resources to the project, and due to underwhelming sales, the Air Rift was immediately shelved. The Air Rift made a return in 2015, by which point the shoe had developed a cult-like following online and could be appreciated by those seeking a more casual alternative to Margiela’s Tabi. In the decade between the Air Rift’s inception and its return, other brands helped do some of the leg work, too, by introducing split-toe models that, in a very limited way, normalized the look.
Visvim introduced its own take on the traditional Japanese aesthetic in 2011, with a new silhouette called the TABI SASHIKO-FOLK. Hiroki Nakamura’s offering bore no resemblance whatsoever to either the Margiela or Nike iterations, instead existing as a neo-Japanese take on a traditional style and further challenging Maison Margiela’s purported hegemony of the Tabi. While the TABI SASHIKO-FOLK hasn’t enjoyed the same widespread success as, say the FBT, the split-toed sneaker has earned many fans among the brand’s devotees.
In 2012, Prada sent split-toed footwear down the runway reminiscent of a red Tabi sock worn with a thonged heel. In a sense, this Prada creation was more overtly referential than the Maison version— a direct allusion to the original Japanese sock—however given how the red color was eerily similar the the famous painted footprints, Miuccia surely had Margiela in mind as well.
With Margiela’s Tabi approaching its 30th anniversary, the aesthetic has been increasingly adopted by other parties of late. The most controversial is undoubtedly Vetements' re-appropriation. Having worked at Maison Margiela from 2009 until 2012, lead designer Demna Gvasalia often uses his brief tenure to justify rummaging through Margiela’s archives for inspiration, in a sort of meta-referential way. While the approach may have worked when Vetements was still relatively new to the fashion scene, since taking over Balenciaga’s creative direction, the Georgian designer has adopted a more combative stance when defending his brand. That attitude did him no favors when he introduced a black leather Tabi during Vetements’ Fall/Winter 2018 womenswear show. Gvasalia argued that Maison Margiela was not a true maison, as its name would imply, but rather “a philosophy” and as such he was simply continuing the Margiela tradition of referential appropriation. But, as critics have pointed out, Margiela’s gift was that his replicas added something genuinely new to the fashion lexicon. Vetements’ Tabi added nothing new, the same pundits argued, and the brand was merely trying to profit off the popularity of Margiela’s most iconic creation.
Of course, one brand reinterpreting the Tabi doesn’t make a trend, even when it generates a firestorm of commentary and analysis. Others who have recently dabbled with the silhouette include the likes of Suicoke, maharishi, and Abasi Rosborough. Suicoke’s take on the Tabi was, naturally, a sandal, whereas both Abasi Rosborough and maharishi —hailing from New York and London, respectively— both opted for more technical boot iterations. As such, both are more closely aligned with traditional Japanese Jika-Tabi, particularly those worn by soldiers. Yet, only one of the two received a warm reception—Abasi’s hit steep discounts, whereas the maharishi pair sold out immediately.
Ultimately, the varying degrees of success are a testament to the Tabi’s still niche appeal. Even at their 30th anniversary year, the Margiela Tabi is equal parts reviled and celebrated. Still, that exact dichotomy explains their enduring appeal—they undeniably catch one’s gaze. The first time you see pair, it’s like seeing a gruesome accident, you can’t help but look.
To be sure, Martin Margiela, will always be considered the Tabi pioneer, with immediate dissent and claims of copyright whenever a new iteration emerges. Brands like Vêtements and Prada are undoubtedly aware of and referencing Margiela’s creation, but brands as disparate as Nike, Visvim and maharishi have shown that the Tabi remains more than simply an anti-establishment fashion statement monopolized by a Belgian designer. Above all else, the Tabi is steeped in 600 years of years of history and culture, blurring the lines between utilitarian workwear and high-fashion risk-taking.