Why Margiela's Tabi Boot Is Minting Money by Slow Waves

As the enigmatic designer's split-toe shoe gains a celebrity following years after its initial release, retailers are cashing in.

By Kati Chitrakon for BOF

img 3 bjork in tabis by glen lunchford.jpg

When Will Heyward bought his first pair of Tabi boots last July, he couldn’t quite believe his luck. The master’s degree student, enrolled at Central Saint Martins in London, had stumbled across an online Italian retailer called Dope Factory stocking brands like Maison Margiela, Off-White, Jil Sander and Alyx. He realised that not only did the platform offer legitimate Tabi shoes at an enticing price — 40 percent off — but also, the style was now available in sizes for men. Heyward purchased them immediately.“I love that some people hate or are scared of them,” he chuckled. “They’re the kind of shoe that when people don’t know what they are, they’re grossed out by them, and when people do, they’re appreciative and it’s like you’re in this little ‘it’ circle.”


Since Margiela introduced an iteration of the Tabi boot for men last season, they’ve been appearing on the feet of many a male — though that never stopped some from squeezing into smaller sizes before now. American Horror Story actor Cody Fern showed up at the 2019 Golden Globes, styled by Nicola Formichetti, in a full Margiela look that included black leather Tabi boots, which shook the Internet as the image went viral in minutes. American GQ promptly claimed that the Tabi boot would be the trend of 2019.

As more high-profile men adopt the cloven footwear — American musician Steve Lacy, hip-hop star A$AP Rocky, and Korean boy-band member Jin of BTS have all recently been spotted wearing the hooves — they may be onto something.

Making the ordinary exotic

As the Birkin bag is to Hermès and the red sole is to Christian Louboutin, the split-toed boot has become synonymous with the house of Margiela. First appearing in his debut show in 1988, the Tabi boot is the Belgian designer’s interpretation of the split Japanese tabi sock, which separates the big toe from the others and is worn with traditional thong sandals.

“The split-toe design has become associated almost exclusively with traditional wafuku Japanese clothing, since tabi socks are the proper — and perhaps only — hosiery to wear with wooden sandals,” said W. David Marx, a Tokyo-based cultural historian and the author of “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style.”

Though Margiela’s first Tabis were doused in red paint — the designer said he wanted the distinctive hoof-like footprint to remain imprinted on the white catwalk (the stains were later transformed into a look that opened his next show in 1989) — the colour of tabi socks have traditionally been a marker of their wearer’s rank. Commoners were only permitted to wear indigo blue, while samurais could wear any colour, except for purple and gold, which were worn by the upper classes. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the mass production and development of rubber, came the rubber-soled jika-tabi, often worn by working class labourers like farmers or construction workers.

So, how did the hooven footwear become so popular worldwide and what’s driving its resurgence today?

Going back to Japan where the style originated, Ametora’s Marx pointed out that companies such as Tabio have built an entire empire on modern interpretations of the tabi sock, while local firms like Sou Sou and Tabi-ji have grown businesses selling tabi-inspired sneakers. Foreign brands like Onitsuka Tiger and Converse have dabbled in offering tabi styles, too. Demna Gvasalia, who has frequently cited Margiela as a key source of inspiration, showed Tabi-style boots for Vetements Autumn/Winter 2018. There are also reports that Nike could bring back its split-toe Air Rift silhouette after product shots recently surfaced.

“All unusual Japanese designs just become fashion innovations in the West. They’re imported with a sprinkle of exoticism and without any of the social baggage of their origin culture,” quipped Marx. “Few [people] will look at a Margiela Tabi shoe and think, ‘ah, the shoe of construction workers.’”

A release provided to BoF by the house, owned today by Only The Brave (OTB) and led by creative director John Galliano, acknowledged the shoe's origins as footwear for the working class, but said that its key appeal — both historically and today — was comfort, allowing for greater agility for the feet and toes.

But it begs the question whether Margiela would be met with accusations of cultural appropriation had he launched his Tabi shoe today. 

"After nearly 200 years of Western artists and designers borrowing from the great tradition of Japanese aesthetics, I don't know how 'political' the idea of a tabi shoe would be considered in the West, but certainly in Japan, there appears to be no controversy," said Marx.


Tokyo-based fashion designer Kota Gushiken is among those who aren't bothered by it. “When I saw it for the first time in a photo, I was around 17-years-old and thought it was amazing,” he told BoF. “Because I’m Japanese, I had known of the tabi shape for a long time, but Margiela’s Tabi boot was something different. It’s [taken] from something traditional, but he took the inspiration and twisted it in his own way.”

“I’m pretty amazed that you asked me this question because I’m wearing them today!” laughed Maya Nago, a Tokyo-based journalist who formerly worked in the Japanese outposts of Wired and Farfetch. “I have two pairs, in black patent leather and in nude, and I don’t think it’s cultural appropriation at all. Rather, it’s a great opportunity for Japanese people to realise that [our] culture and design can inspire others, [especially] as the shoes are designed in a sophisticated, bold and high-fashioned manner.”

“How to explain his popularity? He’s got the magic touch!” said Kristina de Coninck, a longtime muse and model for Margiela, who first appeared in his show in 1989 and continued to walk for the designer until 2005. “When I saw the Tabi boots for the first time, I was immediately seduced by their originality. It was like a poetic fantasy from elsewhere, and wow, every season, Martin introduced a new way of wearing them,” she told BoF. "I think there is a total respect for the Japanese culture."

Maison Martin Margiela - S_S 1996 - Tabi sandal.jpg

But not everyone is as captivated by the designer, said Alexandre Samson, who worked closely with Martin Margiela to curate a retrospective show at the Palais Galliera in 2016. “You have to [realise] that his popularity is a posteriori. During his career, he was relatively unknown for a massive audience,” he explained. “The Tabi boots…were worn by very few daring people during the 1990s. In 2019, I’m not sure their aspects are yet accepted in the streets. Their provocative potential must not be underestimated.”

Selling an animalistic aesthetic

For some wearers, it’s exactly this that makes the footwear so appealing. “[The Tabi] still looks as provocative today as it did when it first appeared,” said Christa Kaufmann, catwalk editor for trend forecasting agency WGSN. “The cycle of the fashion system has been defined by an endless trickle-down of ideas and trends, which has led fashion-forward consumers to look for novelty, originality and individuality more than ever before.”

Social media has played a part in propelling its popularity. “Even though the Tabi boot made its debut pre-Internet, the recognisable clef-toe silhouette is predestined to be a success in the Instagram era,” said Kaufmann. “Because of social media, the ability to source images and the actual product itself has become so much easier,” added Ariana Waiata Sheehan of Aro, a London-based store and appointment-only archive, specialising in Japanese and Belgian designer pieces. Indeed, there is no end to the cult fan accounts celebrating Tabis that have popped up on Instagram, Tumblr and elsewhere.

For those like Heyward, it’s an opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals. “I feel like I have a small bond with every person that I see wearing Tabis,” he said, noting that not many men would give the split-toe shoe a chance — and with all things Margiela, that’s the point. “It’s not for everyone,” agreed Bryant Lee, senior buyer at the influential London-based boutique Machine-A, which has nine Tabi styles for Spring/Summer 2019. The buyer also wears Tabi boots himself.

As the shape becomes revitalised for modern culture, with new iterations and additional sizing for men, it's also driving business for retailers worldwide. “We’ve seen a 112 percent increase on Tabi boot styles arriving in US and UK online retailers over the past three months, compared to three months prior, revealing that demand is alive and well,” said Kayla Marci, market analyst at Edited, a data analytics company specialising in fashion.

“The volume of styles across luxury retailers has steadily picked up over the past few seasons,” agreed Kaufmann of WGSN, which noted a 17 percent uptick in the UK and 11 percent in the US over the past three months. “Though the quantities are small, the volume of styles for men has also doubled from October to December 2018.”

“Our first delivery of the Tabi boot in black leather [for men] sold out within days,” said Federico Barassi, senior director of menswear buying at Ssense, which began offering the Tabi sneaker and heeled boot for men in Autumn/Winter 2018.


“Season to season, we sell hundreds of Tabis and have increased by over 233 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year,” added Brigitte Chartrand, senior director of womenswear buying at Ssense, noting that as a result, the Montreal-based fashion retailer would be collaborating with Margiela on a capsule collection celebrating the Tabi for Spring/Summer 2019. The online platform currently carries 49 Tabi options, including 11 styles in varied materials and colours.

Both and Machine-A, which have stocked the Tabi since Spring/Summer 2017, have seen similar success. “The Tabi boot may have launched in the late 80s, but it is still a very pioneering style that hasn’t dated,” said Cassie Smart, head of womenswear buying at, noting that customers are attracted to the shoe as “an investment piece” and “a collectible.”

“A lot of customers come back each season to discover the new variation that the Tabis have to offer. The signature styles are always the first to go, as they are such classics, while the new designs [tend to] attract collectors,” added Machine-A’s Lee. The craze for Tabi has also extended into the resale market. “As a store of pre-owned pieces, shoes are a difficult product to buy and sell generally, except for coveted shoes like the Tabi, which there’s almost a waiting list for — it’s one of the most asked-for items,” said Aro’s Waiata Sheehan.

At online resale platform Depop, there was a 170 percent increase in the search for Tabi boots in 2018 compared to the previous year. The number of Depop users searching for Tabi boots, meanwhile, increased 134 percent. Prices tend to begin around £300 (almost $400), although the most expensive active listing currently sits at £5,555 ($7,396). “Since the start of 2018, gross merchandise volume driven by Tabi boot sales has increased 85 percent,” said a spokesperson for the company.

Much of the Tabi boot’s unexpected success rests on being deliberately bizarre and heinous, so does it make sense that the house of Margiela is now churning out the style in so many different variations?

Samson said it’s inevitable: “Tabis for Margiela are like tweed for Chanel. It’s become an emblem that is reinterpreted each collection.”


Belgian Fashion Awards 2018 by Slow Waves

WBDM, in collaboration with Le Vif Weekend/Knack, MAD (Brussels Fashion & Design Platform) and Flanders DC (Flanders District of Creativity) honoured the established and future talents of Belgian fashion.


Winners of the 2018 Belgian Fashion Awards were announced at MAD Brussels, during the launch of WE ARE FASHION Festival. The prizes awarded 7 categories to talents either Belgian or established in Belgium.


Designer Of The Year

Awarded to Glenn Martens, creative director of Y/Project for his new vision on fashion. Y/Project – the Paris-based label that combines conceptual and inventive detailing with playful proportions and a witty take on historical references – is Pitti Uomo’s Next Guest Brand in January 2019.


Jury Prize

Awarded to Martin Margiela, for his entire career and his obvious impact on the history of fashion but also on today’s collections, and more than likely the ones to come.


Entrepreneur Of The Year

Awarded to Carol and Sarah Piron for the international development of their brand FILLES A PAPA.

Other winners included Willy Vanderperre and Terre Bleue.

BOF: The Ghosts of Lang and Margiela by Slow Waves


How Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela left a radical roadmap for Raf Simons, Demna Gvasalia and Phoebe Philo.




LONDON, United Kingdom — Fashion is no different from the rest of life in its binary essence. Its story evolves in pairs: Chanel and Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Dior, Montana and Mugler, Armani and Versace, Galliano and McQueen, Philo and Ghesquière, defining their moment, inspiring their peers. Currently, we’ve got Raf Simons and Demna Gvasalia, who have sparked the conversation between street and salon that is transforming fashion. But behind them looms another pair of influencers: the true motivators.

It’s been more than ten years since Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela left their brands in the hands of others. The reasons why their influence lingers so strongly are complex, as much to do with who they were, as with what they did. They walked away at the top of their game. There are few gestures more resonant, partly because unfinished business is not the way fashion prefers things. Look at the world now and you could easily imagine some of today’s key players taking upon themselves the responsibility of wrapping up loose ends for Lang and Margiela — or at least running with the radical road map they left behind. Simons and Gvasalia, obviously. But Phoebe Philo’s time at Céline explored similar territory, and, less obvious but maybe more intriguing, you have the likes of John Galliano, now carrying the mantle at Margiela’s Maison, and Rick Owens, continuing the grand experiment.

"Reflecting on the nineties, it’s hard to dodge the feeling that fashion is now a lot more ordinary."

In an era — and an industry — where there are no longer things such as secrets, Lang and Margiela remain consummate men of mystery. They weren’t opposites — like Armani and Versace for instance — but they were different enough that, at the time, people seemed to favour one or the other. Lang was always the modernist, the arch-minimalist. Margiela’s aesthetic was, by comparison, riskier, more of a magpie clutter. Lang celebrated construction, Margiela dissolved it. If Lang’s radicalism seemed to be very much of the time (1997’s “Gattaca,” the fashion movie of the millennium, was cool, sensual Helmut on celluloid), Margiela veered between discombobulated echoes of a formal past in his Edwardian silhouettes and fleeting glimpses of a synthetic future.


One thing I remember is the wholesale enthusiasm that would greet Lang’s shows, and the more guarded assessments that would follow Margiela’s, much like Miuccia Prada’s some years later, where, after a show, you could sense people waiting for a consensus to form. “Martin was never a tastemaker,” claims one contemporary, whose claim on anonymity is convincing enough for me. “There was always something uncomfortable and unflattering about his clothes. And people at the time really thought the secondhand, pre-worn thing was a bit creepy.” That is something else the passage of time inevitably allows: as the rough edges are smoothed, the burnishing of the legend can proceed without question.

In hindsight, Lang’s prescience was stunning. He was the first designer to acknowledge the impact of the internet, choosing to show his collection for Autumn/Winter 1998 online, rather than as a physical presentation. That was the same year he advertised on New York taxis, the first designer to utilise mass marketing in such a creative way. And it was in 1998 that Lang turned the fashion calendar on its head by deciding to show in New York rather than Paris, thus forcing the show schedule the industry now follows, with New York first in early September instead of last in early November. Lang didn’t play by the rules, he simply changed them to suit himself. How irresistible such a notion must be for designers now, either bound to a corporate wheel or wrestling with the tenets of independence.



If Margiela’s engagement with the cutting edge of technology was less obvious (despite what former colleagues describe as a neo-Warholian fascination with the culture of celebrity), his commitment to iconoclasm was as ardent as Lang’s. Their clothes were unyielding, tough and unsentimental. It occurs to me that, in initially setting them up as counterpoints, I’m instinctively finding connections. Like the season where they both chose the same accent colour — a bilious yellow — for their otherwise monochrome collections. But whatever wavelength they were on found more compelling expression in ideas bigger than colour palette. Chaos, for instance. In Lang’s last collections, he seemed to be embracing the fiercely unpredictable. At the time, he insisted he was also introducing a lot of organic inspirations, like stuff he found on the beach outside his home on Long Island. Nature is the mother of beautiful chaos. How often were Margiela’s collections formed in that essence of paganism, bodies daubed, crusted, swaddled?




Reflecting on the 90s, it’s hard to dodge the feeling that fashion is now a lot more ordinary. Maybe it’s the ambiguous benison of streetwear. Designers themselves seem to acknowledge that, when they commit to “finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.” In their own distinct ways, Lang and Margiela made the blueprints, creating cult objects out of basics: utility wear, T-shirts, distressed denim, lingerie, latex. Margiela challenged function by exploding coats and jackets. At Balenciaga, Gvasalia launched his quest for a way to transmute the classic elegance of haute couture into the 21st century with an off-the-shoulder parka whose volume was a deliberate Margiela echo. At his own label, Vetements, he was compelled to acknowledge the influence of Margiela, the crucible in which his own aesthetic was formed by being in charge of the design team for three years, when he named his collection for Autumn/Winter 2018 “The Elephant in the Room.” The prototype for Galliano’s dissection of garments at Margiela, the skeletal technique he calls décortique, can be found in Lang’s experiments with the bare bones of clothes.

The way in which Lang and Margiela addressed the familiar — finding ways to mutate and elevate anonymity — was a natural evolution of their sense of the women and men they dressed. The current debate about diversity would have been irrelevant to them. Their runways were home to all sorts. “Both Martin and Helmut dressed real people as opposed to the generation of Montana and Mugler before them,” says Lutz Huelle, who assisted Margiela from 1994 to 1996, “so they spoke to a lot of different women, not an idealised form of one type. And I think that people miss that ‘artistic’ view of seeing the world as opposed to a uniquely mercantile one.”


It wasn’t only “artistic.” What stands out for me now is the precise psychology of Lang and Margiela’s clothing. They knew what their customers needed. The notion of protection has been a stated trend in recent fashion, entirely explicable in light of a world going gaga. But protection has always been fundamental in clothing. It’s striking how armoured Lang and Margiela’s clothes often seemed, how they provided an inbuilt sense of security. Fashion always reflects — “the glass of fashion” Cecil Beaton called it — but the best fashion projects. Anticipates. Like Lang. Like Margiela. Post-Internet, there’s an irresistible purity and integrity to what they achieved.

Helmut Lang called his shows “séances de travail.” There, the literal meaning of the word séance is a session or a sitting. It was not just about the work, it was equally the showing of the work that mattered to him. Sometime after the fact of his last presentation, for Spring/Summer 2005, he told me, “I didn’t want it to be always starting somewhere and then ending and the next thing being completely different, because that didn’t make sense to me.” Margiela was similarly preoccupied. His work diverted fashion away from the circus it became in the 90s — the delirious roundelay of change — to re-focus attention on his consistent core principles: body and fabric.


But we could choose to use the word séance as it is understood more generally in English, as a communion with something spiritual, intangible. Lang and Margiela saw creativity as a forceful, continuous flow. Evolution, not revolution. It’s telling that both designers removed themselves from the industry while they were still comparatively young. “This isn’t for me” is a powerful statement. We know that Lang has since lived his life quietly as an artist, according to the precepts that shaped his time in fashion. Margiela remains as enigmatic as ever. His current retrospective at the Palais Galliera is impressive but it appropriately, provokingly, asks more questions than it answers. So, it’s in the work of the acolytes that we’ve seen the seeds they sowed sprout contemporary forms: Simons at Calvin Klein, Gvasalia at Balenciaga, Galliano in his stewardship of Margiela’s Maison, season on season exploring defiant pet themes like “dressing in haste” and “unconscious glamour.”




Like the tendrils of triffids, Lang and Margiela infect new generations. The most inspiring, encouraging thing, however, is that their truly transformative impact has yet to be felt. As the future tries and fails to define them, they will continue to warp fashion in their own supremely logical, totally inexplicable way. In light of the fact that I’ve never actually laid eyes on Martin Margiela, let alone spoken to him, it has to be Helmut Lang who has the last word. I asked him once about the gap between ideal and reality, the chasm where all dreams die. He was characteristically unshakeable. “I’m not made for that negative concept. Even when times are not favourable, there’s a good possibility to do something or to start something. I think if I am interested in something, I’ve never been so disappointed by it that I was irritated.” Children of the future, heed those words.



Article by Tim blanks for Business of Fashion


John Galliano On Going Back To His Roots by Slow Waves


Here's what happened when John Galliano returned to his old stomping ground

'John Galliano briefly boards the number 12 to Oxford Circus, and a passenger’s jaw literally drops. With his otherworldly air, the elusive Maison Maison Margiela designer is the last person you’d expect to see at an Elephant and Castle bus stop on a rainy afternoon. '



'On our way to the shoot, he’s been watching his formative years pass by from the car window. “I don’t remember any of these little things. It’s completely changed, hasn’t it?” The Heygate Street bus stop was young Galliano’s portal to the escapism of the West End as a teenager growing up in southeast London in the 1970s.'




'Galliano was six when his family relocated from sunny Gibraltar to southeast London, and the multicultural melting pot would forge the foundation for his sensory view of fashion. Since he started interpreting Maison Margiela’s trademark deconstruction in 2015, his collections have reflected a make-do-and-mend attitude close to his early fashion efforts. “To make yourself look original you customised things. That’s a very south London thing,” he explains.'

As a Central Saint Martins student in the early 1980s, he moved to Mornington Crescent, got into Bodymap and Boy George, hung out with Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, and went clubbing at Embassy and Taboo. “I graduated in 1984, the Thatcher years – your back up against the wall, no grants. You became really creative with the means you had. That was the period when all that deconstruction was actually happening for real in London, but we didn’t know."

'Perched on the bus-stop bench in his beret and furry Prada moccasins, he throws a Tesco plastic bag over his arm as if it were an evening purse. It’s the innate sense of appropriation that’s followed Galliano through four decades in fashion. Proposing a “new glamour”, his latest haute couture collection for Maison Margiela glamorised the unglamorous – an old men’s coat, a cardboard box. “Elephant and Castle is really glamorous,” he insists. “Underneath one of the subways was a Wimpy, with the ketchup in a plastic tomato. When you had pocket money you’d go for a Wimpy and chips.” Providing, of course, you hadn’t spent it on a night out in Soho.'


Read the full interview by Anders Christian Madsen HERE


MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA Spring Summer 1990 by Slow Waves

An oral history via The Gentlewoman

"As a student I always thought that fashion was a bit superficial, all glitz and glamour, but this show changed everything for me. I walked out of it and I thought, That’s what I’m going to do. That show is the reason I became a fashion designer."

Raf Simons

"He was my best assistant. When after a few years he wanted to leave and start his own collection, I could only be happy for him and wish him good luck. From Martin’s first show I saw immediately that he had his own voice and his own way."

Jean Paul Gaultier

Read the full article by Richard O'Mahony here-

Vetements' Demna Gvasalia talks to BOF by Slow Waves

In an exclusive interview, Demna Gvasalia, head of the Vetements collective and newly appointed artistic director of Balenciaga, talks to Imran Amed about a new operating model designed to fix the ‘broken’ fashion system, as well as his time spent at Margiela.

IA: What was it like to work in that mythical place?
DG: It was exceptional. That period of my life was probably the most formative in terms of fashion. My real studies, where I learned about clothes, was working at Margiela, especially in this kind of transitional period after Martin left; when the company was trying to modernise its DNA and find ways to continue its history. For me it was like an MA in fashion.
When you’re a student at a fashion academy, it’s all really theoretical. Here it was real, it was something that people made — that people wore. The most amazing thing was actually discovering the archives and looking at how the pieces were made and learning the way that the clothes were designed.
I saw the pieces that were done at the beginning of Margiela at the beginning of the 1990s. It was investigative fashion. They took a shirt, they took it apart, and they made a new one out of it. This whole idea about understanding the core of what you are doing, to make something new. They needed to take a shirt apart to make a new shirt. They didn’t come up with a new garment that didn’t exist.
It became a method of working for me. You really needed to understand the construction of the garment and to kind-of be in love with it in order to make something out of it. That’s something I learned there.
IA: Why is that important to you?
DG: A garment is a product. It’s not made to be in a museum. It’s meant to be in somebody’s wardrobe. But then again, you need to like what you do. You don’t just need to like your job, but you need to like the product. I don’t want to compare it to an artist working on an artwork — but it’s the same. You are kind of subconsciously in love with what you do, and I think as I am working on a hoodie, I love to work on that hoodie. That’s what enhances your ideas and your creativity.


Read the full interview here-