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.