The cult of the Margiela Tabi: how cloven-hooved shoes became a fashion must-have

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Two pairs of Maison Margiela 'Tabi' footwear on flower background
(Image credit: Future)

The One logo Marie Claire

(Image credit: Future)

Fashion’s predilection for a brilliantly bonkers shoe has long been brewing. But this year it’s really stepped into its own. There is no missing JW Anderson’s smiley face frog slippers, or Loewe’s balloon pumps, not to mention MSCHF’s clompy red cartoon boots. And at the spring/summer 2024 shows, just gone, AVAVAV’s four-toed boots became a recurring street-style sighting.

But before all of these, there was Maison Martin Margiela's Tabi boot. Hoof-like, in a Chronicles of Narnia kind of way, they are the original divisive footwear design in fashion, even though their history extends far beyond their circa 1988/89 debut by the Belgian designer Martin Margiela.

The story goes that the fashion wunderkind, who is known for a deconstructionist aesthetic, took a trip to Tokyo after he had left his then role at Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris. Since the 15th century, split-toe socks, known as tabi socks, have been worn in Japan—thought to promote balance. It was these that caught the eye of the designer as he embarked upon setting up his namesake label.  

3 image comp - top side profile pump shoe, bottom left sole detail, bottom right front profile black shoe

(Image credit: Future)

The footwear would famously feature in his first show, dipped in red paint so that hoof imprints followed the models as they went. A cult classic was born: one with an intellectual and subversive fashion air, worn only by those who knew. And frowned upon by those who didn’t. 

Until now. Following the viral Tabi Swiper TikTok mini drama earlier this year (in which a woman's date stole her beloved Margiela shoes), the fashion and technology platform Lyst reported a 342 per cent spike in searches for the Tabi, and noted the Tabi Mary Jane as being among the most wanted fashion items this third quarter. 

Chloe Sevigny Margiela Tabi boots

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Chloe Sevigny, Zendaya, Dua Lipa are all fans, clocked in versions from dainty flats to the signature boots. Emily Cooper, aka Lily Collins, in Emily in Paris also wore them for the fashion-mad TV show. 

And certainly, they have already been memed over by the ever popular (and on point) Real Housewives of Clapton Instagram account, which has satirically proffered Tabi Bobbing (bobbing for apples wearing Tabis) among a new East London craze for Halloween. The shoes were originally filed among its 'Pub Footwear Guide' - which also includes jelly shoes, Birkenstocks, Crocs, bare feet and Salomon trainers - in which it congratulates owners of the Tabi for now being able to have conversations about them with their fellow Tabi owners. 

And there are many, besides the famous faces. The Instagram account MargielaTab1, with its 46.5k followers, brings together multiple iterations of the shoe from collectors and fashion insiders, sharing archive designs and even a birthday cake made to look like them.

Not "just footwear," declares the resale site Vestiaire Collective, where there are pages of them up for grabs for a new generation hungry for nostalgia (and bovine feet). "They’re a masterpiece of fashion and art," it continues. "These iconic shoes are celebrated for their unique design, exceptional craftsmanship, and their ability to seamlessly blend artistic expression with wearable fashion."

Today, the shoe has been taken under the watchful eye of John Galliano, who was appointed to the creative helm of Maison Margiela in 2014 (a choice reportedly approved of by the reclusive Margiela, who had left the brand in 2009). Loafers, cowboy boots, ballet flats, sneakers and stiletto style Tabis are among those that have been additionally trotted out since, adding a new dimension and convivial spin to everyday classics. 

"The essential meaning of the Tabi is different today in that it does not represent the outsider, the weirdo, the knowingly anti-norm as it once did," says Dal Chodha, a London-based writer and consultant—and owner of a pair of ankle-length flat Tabi boots in leather. 

He recalls how in the early 2000s when he first wore the split-toe style in the form of the Nike Air Rift trainer (which is not a direct relative of the Tabi but certainly among its friendship circle), he enjoyed how much people would squirm when they saw them. 

Of their popularity now he says, "There is something wonderful in how our tastes and our openness to difference has come so far that barely anyone will bat an eyelid if they spotted a Tabi out in the wilds of Kent or Bedfordshire." 

For Naoki Watanabe, a luxury fashion PR, who also came across them first in the early 2000s, the appeal has always been in the connection. "I love Margiela's Tabi," he shares, "Simply, because they reference traditional Japanese culture."

This season, loafers and slingbacks have had the Tabi treatment. Try a dark-wash pair of jeans, or a tailored trouser with the loafer depending on whether you're doing casual or smart. You might even be able to wear them into the office. A mid-length fitted slit skirt, or cropped trousers/jeans will work with the slingbacks, as they would also with something more dressy if heels aren't your thing. A vintage dress will bring an autumnal feel to the boots, which of course are a classic. 

Shop the Margiela Tabi

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Jessica Bumpus
Fashion Journalist

Jessica Bumpus is a freelance journalist specialising in fashion, lifestyle, luxury, craftsmanship and emerging talent. She was formerly the Fashion Features Editor at British Vogue online for 8 years, where she covered fashion weeks extensively. Her work can be seen in New York Times International, Elle.com US, The Week Fashion, Nylon and more! 


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