Love it or hate it, Margiela Tabi boots are an icon with distinct provenance
While other labels have evolved from niche to mainstream over time, Maison Margiela has remained continuously, purposefully under the radar, known primarily to insiders, and true to its founding vision of thirty years ago. That’s thanks in part to the iconic styles that have emerged from the brand over the years and remain staples today. One of those is the split-toe design of Margiela Tabi boots, which first appeared in 1988 and are still a favorite among fashion modernists. The split-toe design has been interpreted into high-heeled and flat boots, sneakers, ballet flats, sandals, and accessories, and even copied by other brands and designers. But the Margiela Tabi boots will always be the original.
The irony is that for such a celebrated design, the split Tabi toe looks at best, quite awkward. Rather than mimicking the contours of a human’s five toes, it evokes the lines of a cleft lip, of two halves that failed to grow together properly. Is it a genetic deformity or the perfect shoe for a centaur? In either case, the standard reaction is not one of immediate embrace—the Tabi toe shoe is an acquired taste.
The split-toe motif was originally inspired by the socks of 15th century Japan called “tabi,” which were divided into two toe sections in order to comfortably fit the thonged sandals that were customary footwear at the time. Years later, it would still appear on the everyday shoes of Japanese workers, called “jika-tabi,” because the split toe and soft sole enabled better grip and agility on uneven surfaces.
Since the late 1980s, the Tabi toe has become synonymous with Maison Margiela. The shape was an accidental fixture of the brand in the early years because the designer was working on thin budgets and had no resources to create new shoe models, so the Tabi was re-shown on each runway with different treatments, like paint splatters, another Margiela hallmark.
Today, creative director John Galliano carries on the tradition of the iconic shape, with the tabi toe applied to all types of footwear for both men and women. For the former, we like the completely flat black leather Tabi ankle boots, which from afar appear to be socks but actually rest on a thin leather sole. They can be worn with jeans, trousers, and dressed up or down easily.
For something more casual and all-season, the tabi also appears on the toes of simple white leather sneakers, which are entirely standard until you notice the deep indentation in the toe box, a clear signal that they’re no ordinary white sneakers.
Maison Margiela has even more to satisfy the female Tabi-curious. The best of the season is a barrel-heeled ankle boot, which the house executes in a kaleidoscope of visual treatments: from iridescent PVC to silver sequins to a multicolor abstract-printed leather version, all of which are sure to catch the attention of the style-aware and spark conversation. Of course, there are more classical flavors too: all black, all white, and a happy medium between the two—natural snakeskin with a shorter heel height.
How to Wear It
Since the Tabi is a statement by itself, let the rest of your ensemble take a backseat. That means when you break out your Margiela Tabi boots, pair them with simple cuts and neutral or complementary colors. Focus on the modern: elegant trousers, classic knits, minimal jewelry, and a non-nonsense handbag. Think art director and you’ll be fine.
Long Live the Tabi
If you take a step back, it’s clear that the Margiela Tabi boots and their lovable awkwardness is symbolic of the label more broadly. Like other designers that focus on pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be attractive rather than commercial appeal (Miuccia Prada comes to mind as one of the originators of “ugly chic”), Maison Margiela takes traditional icons and staples, deconstructs and then reconstructs them with all sorts of strange and interesting details. With each collection, they arrive at a place where we as the buying public are fascinated but also slightly uncomfortable.
That is also the definition of good art—something that when viewed is at once thrilling and frightening, bizarre and exciting. It’s evocative, if nothing else.
Thirty years later, we love the Maison Margiela Tabi toe, for it’s one of the genuinely original, timeless expressions of creativity in fashion. It’ll probably never be mainstream, but it will forever be a reference to the designer, his perspective, and be something unique in a sea of copycats and iterative designs.
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