Guest editor Samutaro delivers his signature deep-dive analysis, this time exploring a collision of icons - Maison Margiela and Reebok. Unpacking the cultural resonance of the Margiela Tabi silhouette and the enduring love affair between luxury design and sneaker culture, Samutaro examines why Tabi-season is just getting started.
Few items in fashion challenge opinion quite like Maison Margiela’s split-toe Tabi boot. The unconventional design lives somewhere between the mesmerizing and the disconcerting, and anyone who’s worn a pair in public can attest to the polarizing reactions they provoke from strangers. Teen tourists sneakily snigger; fashion enthusiasts fawn; mothers are forced to hush their children who naively question the weird design; businessmen are left baffled. The truth is Tabi boots have been dividing opinions since 1988 when Maison Margiela founder - Martin Margiela - sent the original clove-toed silhouette down his debut runway presentation in Paris. Perhaps it is this divisive appeal that has made the tabi Margiela’s most iconic design - one which Margiela himself admits is the most important footprint of his career.
While the Tabi has become synonymous with Margiela’s legacy, the original design precedes Margiela by hundreds of years. With its separate big toe, the tabi dates back to 15th century Japan, where two-fingered socks were crafted to be worn with traditional thonged sandals. The split-toe sock became a mainstay of Japanese wardrobes throughout the Edo period and was governed by societal hierarchy: upper-class wore purple and gold, samurai all but those, and commoners exclusively blue. Around the 1900s, rubber soles were added for outdoor activities, and these, called jika-tabi, are still worn as worker’s shoes today. It’s this latter iteration of the Japanese tabi that Margiela observed during a trip to Japan in April 1984 with his classmates - from the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Years later, he learned that separating the big toe would stimulate a point of reflexology that promotes both balance and a clear mind.
For the presentation held at Café de la Gare in Paris, he drenched his models in red paint, so that the unusual footprints they left behind were clearly visible on the white catwalk.
When creating the silhouette, the Belgian visionary sought a design that gave the illusion of a bare foot on a high, chunky foundation. To achieve this, Margiela defined his Tabi boots with a large cylindrical heel that would ensure their stability, in accordance with the diameter of the heel of the foot. With such a unique footprint, it's only natural he made the tabi the central focus for his debut show. For the presentation held at Café de la Gare in Paris, he drenched his models in red paint, so that the unusual footprints they left behind were clearly visible on the white catwalk. "I thought the audience should notice the new footwear. And what would be more evident than its footprint?" the designer explained to Geert Bruloot, the man behind MoMu Antwerp’s exhibition: Footprint – The Track of Shoes in Fashion.
From that moment, the Tabi was an instant success and has become one of the most iconic fashion pieces of all time. Still to this day, there are few shoe designs that are talked about with the same passion. It is a certified cult classic, collected and coveted the world over in the same way sneakerheads obsess over vintage Jordans. Artists like Bjork and ASAP Rocky have been photographed in them, they’re displayed in museums like the Met and MOMA, and for fans, they are the most prized possession in their wardrobe.
With such a strong identity and cult following, it is no wonder Margiela has consistently reinterpreted and reimagined the design countless times over the past 30-some years. The original heeled silhouette is certainly the most iconic, but the breadth of designs the brand has released (even beyond Margiela’s departure from the label in 2009) is far-reaching. Over the years the Tabi has evolved and morphed into every footwear silhouette you can think of from leather loafers to wooden clogs, canvas plimsolls to furry mules. "The most extreme version was a pair of soles on high heels, sold with a roll of transparent scotch tape to attach them to your feet" Margiela once said.
In 2019, during Paris Couture Week, Maison Margiela debuted its most commercial take on the Tabi yet when creative director John Galliano sent a pair of split-toe Reebok’s Instapump Fury sneakers down the catwalk. The sneaker-boot hybrid was one of the most talked-about moments of the Spring/Summer 2020 season and has since spawned an ongoing run of collaborative Tabi-takes between the two iconic names. One of the most hyped is the upcoming Tabi version of the Reebok Classic Leather, which has been dividing opinion online since Kim Kardashian previewed the sneaker on her Instagram stories back in January.
As expected, the Classic Leather Tabi sports a few of Margiela’s signature style cues. The “bianchetto” colourway slated for release later this year is a cool-toned white, hand-painted on top of a black nappa leather base that peeks through like a coat of wall primer. As you wear the shoe, the paint is designed to chip off the upper and black cotton laces, so it will never look the same way twice.
Much like the Tabi design, this hand-painted finish, in particular white, is something that has been synonymous with Margiela’s house codes for decades. The walls, floors and ceilings at Margiela’s Paris headquarters in the 11th arrondissement are whitewashed and, of course, Margiela was famous for repainting Tabi’s from previous seasons that had not sold, as there was no budget to create new designs from scratch. This inventive thriftiness is what defines Margiela’s 0/10: artisanal collection, which famously debuted in Spring 1999.
In an era where designer sneaker collaborations barely go beyond standard logo slapping and reworked colour schemes, the Tabi can be proof that sometimes what challenges us is more important than what is simply 'beautiful'.
Despite the Tabi having been around for over 30 years, it is only really now that the design is reaching a wider commercial appreciation, especially amongst men, which is why the Reebok collaboration comes at the right time. Margiela’s Tabi design was initially introduced for women, but the original silhouette from Japan has always been unisex.
The upcoming Classic Leather Tabi is set to push the split-toe concept further into the cultural zeitgeist thanks to its fusion of function and fashion. It might seem like a cultish silhouette that only finds footing with fashion's most daring, but with a storied legacy and low-key hype bubbling, it’s no surprise the appeal of the Reebok Tabi has begun to take hold beyond an inner sanctum of Margiela loyalists.
The collaboration finds its strength in how it manages to capture the most infectious aspect of Margiela’s original Tabi - which is to take something so familiar and imbue it with something so strange that it forces you to feel.
In an era where designer sneaker collaborations barely go beyond standard logo slapping and reworked colour schemes, the Tabi can be proof that sometimes what challenges us, is more important than what is simply 'beautiful'.
The first drop of Reebok x Maison Margiels Project 0 is now available for registration on END. Launches.
Reebok x Maison Margiela Project 0 Classic Leather Tabi
Reebok x Maison Margiela Project 0 Classic Leather Tabi