There's a strange queasiness in the Western world when it comes to footwear that hints at or shows the actual anatomy of the foot. Think about the disgust directed toward the individually toed Vibram FiveFingers running shoe. But despite that, the split-toed Japanese tabi-style shoe is being tipped by some as the men's footwear look of 2019.
During his debut solo show in 1988, Martin Margiela singlehandedly obliterated foot-based conservatism with the introduction of his new fashion house's Tabi. When the split-toed shoe made its first appearance down the Margiela runway, the fashion world was shocked as paint-doused models left tracks of cleft footprints in their wake.
As the designer said himself a few years ago, “The Tabi boot is the most important footprint of my career. It’s recognizable, it still goes on after 25 years, and it has never been copied.” The latter point isn't quite right (more on that later), but the Tabi does immediately spring to mind when you think of Margiela.
“The Tabi isn't for everyone, but then again, what is for everyone?" says Oslo-based fashion journalist Madeleine Holth. "It's easy for people to hate things they don't understand or want to understand. The Tabi is a strong historical garment that has been reworked to fit our modern wardrobe. The wearer doesn't care whether you like it or not. That is the power of the split toe.”
Fashion editor and stylist Gabriella Karefa-Johnson believes the appeal is more complicated. "I love the dichotomy of the Tabi," she says. "They are objectively ugly but made from such exquisite leathers that, at a point, they can be considered really beautiful objects. The Tabi boot looks harsh and jarring, but when I'm wearing them, I feel very strong and sexy. There's something kind of sick and wonderful about having a fine piece of leather between your toes."
The small-T tabi dates back to 15th-century Japan. The country had started importing cotton from China, leading to the production of socks with divided toes designed to be worn with traditional zori and geta thonged sandals.
Tabi socks were developed in a variety of colors to denote the status of the wearer. For example, peasants wore indigo blue for daily tasks, while white was reserved for weddings and tea ceremonies. Multicolored or patterned tabi were worn by performers, and samurai were given permission to wear any color except purple or gold, which were reserved for nobility.
For more than two centuries up until the mid-19th century, Japan maintained an isolationist policy of “sakoku,” limiting trade and the right of foreigners to visit, until a flotilla of American warships forced the country to open up at gunpoint. This period of isolation meant the country's culture rarely made it abroad and took in few external influences.
At the turn of the 20th century, with Japan industrializing and the use of rubber in production increasing, the tabi got a rework for outdoor use. Invented by Shojiro Ishibashi, founder of tire-making giant Bridgestone, the jika-tabi — or “direct tabi," as in "tabi that touch the ground directly” — reimagined the sock as a light yet durable worker boot.
This period coincided with an aggressive foreign policy, fueling imperialism, wars against China and Russia, and fascism, culminating in the disasters of World War II, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. With Japan broken and pushed toward pacifist reform under Western occupation, Japanese culture started to be exported peacefully, tabi included.
In 1951, Shigeki Tanaka won the Boston Marathon in a pair of split-toed tabi sneakers produced by Onitsuka (today known as ASICS). Yet, despite that exposure, tabi remained a Japan-only style until Margiela's 1988 intervention.
As the first footwear silhouette produced under his name, Margiela wanted something referential yet unique to him. He also wanted something that would be moderately inexpensive to produce each season. When retelling the origin story of Margiela's Tabi to AnOther magazine, Geert Bruloot — the first buyer to stock the shoe — recalled how the designer had told him there was "no budget" for a different type of shoe, leaving Bruloot with no choice other than to keep stocking Tabis.
With demand for Tabis gradually ticking up and no money to make new versions of his shoes, Margiela found a novel way to update the design, literally repainting his first season's unsold Tabis with wall paint.
Although traditional tabi are unisex, the Belgian designer’s work was geared toward women, with Maison Margiela not releasing a men’s version of its signature shoe until 2017, nearly a decade after Margiela himself had left the house. But long before the Margiela Tabi hit the men's runway, the look did appear for men outside of Japan, circling back to Tanaka's marathon victory and returning as a running shoe — only this time the inspiration came from Africa.
In 1996, Nike unveiled an experimental sneaker-sandal hybrid for long-distance runners. Made in consultation with barefoot runners from Kenya, with one of its two OG colorways decked out in the colors of the Kenyan flag, the Air Rift featured a stretchy elastic strap and thick rubber sole with a split toe to give the wearer a more natural running motion.
The shoe remained something of a Swoosh curio down the years, with variants and new colorways popping up every now and then. But it had enough of a cult following to warrant a 20th-anniversary reissue of the first colorways and a mesh-covered Breathe edition in 2016.
Back in Japan, 2011 saw visvim release its own take, the Tabi Sashiko-Folk. The sneaker boasted a mid-cut hybrid construction with indigo-dyed laces, a sashiko-stitched upper, white rubber outsole, and a natural crepe sole. Suicoke, another Japanese favorite, has also tackled the tabi in recent years, releasing the BITA-V sandal with neoprene split toe. In Europe, meanwhile, Prada sent Japanese-style split-toed socks and shoes down its Spring/Summer 2013 women's ready-to-wear runway.
More controversial among fashion tabi was Vetements' Fall/Winter 2018 leather version. Having worked at Maison Margiela from 2009 to 2012, Vetements designer Demna Gvasalia faced significant criticism for the boot, with accusations he'd lifted it wholesale from his former employer. Gvasalia, for his part, told journalists backstage after the FW18 show, "I went back to my roots as a designer. I went back to Margiela. I wanted to show what Margiela means for me and for Vetements."
Other contemporary labels such as Abasi Rosborough and maharishi have opted to update the jika-tabi, adding a blend of luxe and technical materials. As Greg Rosborough explains, “To the Western eye, the first time you see a tabi, it's strange and it challenges you. It’s a little too anatomical looking. The first time I saw it, I was very intrigued. I wanted to try out a design that has existed for thousands of years across Asia and Japan, understand what it was about.”
As Rosborough suggests, while the tabi is one of the hyped looks of 2019, it still splits opinions as well as toes. But with six centuries under its belt, the tabi is steeped in history, culture, and innovation. Today, designers and even engineers are still exploring new ways to update this 15th-century staple. Early in the 21st century, ASICS worked with Japanese space agency JAXA to develop an ultra-lightweight tabi sneaker for Japanese astronauts.
“The [Margiela] Tabi has in many ways become the Air Force 1 of high-fashion — it never goes out of style and works with everything,” says Holth. It might seem like a cultish shoe that only fashion's most daring are comfortable wearing in public, but with a storied past and low-key hype bubbling, maybe it's time to ditch our conservatism and finally show off our toes.
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Check out what Higher Brothers had to say about Tabi boots by watching this episode of Itemized.