“The Tabi boot is the most important footprint of my career: it’s recognizable, it still goes on after 25 years, and it was never copied.”
Perhaps the most famous quote from the mysterious Martin Margiela, expressing his high opinion of the sensational shoes, says a lot – especially given the vast archive of his collections and the duration of his influence. When the split-toe shoe debuted in the first fashion show of the Maison Martin Margiela Spring / Summer 1989 collection, the boots deeply shook the fashion world. However, season after season, the silhouette returned and continued to sell despite people’s doubts.
Japanese Tabi Socks
“When you want to create an entirely new shoe model, never seen before, you go a little crazy. I remembered my first trip to Tokyo when I saw workers on the street wearing tabi shoes. On a flat sole made of cotton. And then I thought: “Oh, why don’t I make tabi with a small heel? “- said the designer.
Even though tabi is inevitably linked to Martin Margiela’s legacy, to claim that these are unique boots would be a severe exaggeration. The idea of a shoe with a split-toe was not only studied by other designers, but the shoes themselves appeared hundreds of years before Margiela.
Tabi had its origins in the 15th century when Japan began to import cotton from China. The advent of raw materials has given rise to many new products, including socks. The result was ankle-length cotton socks with a split between the thumb and the rest of the toes – these were the first tabi boots.
Split-toe socks remained a staple of Japanese wardrobe throughout the Edo period. The tabi colors, governed by Japan’s feudal social hierarchy, were indicative of position and power. Peasants wore indigo tabi in everyday life, while a white version was for special occasions.
The mass production of rubber gave rise to the Jika-tabi: boots that made contact with the ground. Invented by Tokujiro Ishibashi, whose family has long been in the rubber business – his brother, Shojiro, founded the tire company Bridgestone – the pair was closer to the shoe’s western version. Unlike their fashionable counterpart, the Jika-tabi was work “boots” designed for builders, farmers, rickshaw drivers, and other handymen. Moreover, makers believed split-toe shoe aid mobility.
After World War II, footwear continued to impact, and in 1951 Shigeki Tanaka won the Boston Marathon with a tabi-inspired Onitsuka running shoe. Despite Tanaka’s success, the shoes remained a curiosity for the United States and did not lead to immediate imitations.
Maison Margiela Tabi Boots - How It All Began
For many decades outside of Japan – where Jika-tabi remained a perpetual work shoe, and tabi socks were ubiquitous – no one spoke of them. Until 1989 saw the first show of Martin Margiela. Because the boots were relatively unknown outside Japan, they contained a very covert reference – like most of the designer’s work, especially among the shoes – that only the most careful observers could appreciate. To draw more attention to the boots, Margiela dipped models in red paint before entering the catwalk, thanks to which the shoes left a path of footprints. Fall / Winter 1989, his next runway show opened with a vest made from a material with tabi marks, thus establishing Margiela’s work’s centerpiece.
The ubiquity of tabi boots in Margiela’s work is enormous because it was the first shoe he presented. The designer told Gert Brulott – the first customer to receive the shoes – that in the years after the debut of his eponymous collection, “there was no budget to create new shapes, so there was no choice but to continue working on the tabi style.” Gradually, Margiela was able to expand the range of shoes presented and develop the concept of shoes, offering other silhouettes besides the ankle boots – including trainers, sandals, heels, and, in Margiela’s manner, soles that are attached to the feet with tape.
Despite Margiela’s work’s referential nature, there are essential differences between traditional Japanese tabi and a Belgian designer’s creation. While the original tabi shoes are for both men and women – in both feudal and modern Japan – tabi boots and Margiela’s other products were aimed at women. Only recently, almost ten years after Margiela left his fashion house, the brand introduced boots designed specifically for men – a luxurious leather attempt to reimagine Jika tabi, as well as a tabi version of the German Army Trainer Replica sneakers.