This summer, I worked at a fashion studio/showroom in Tribeca. I came into work one day to find my very cool French coworker donning a pair of Maison Margiela tabi sneakers. It’d been a while since I’d appropriated my mom’s gray Margiela sweater, a while since I first cheated on Brandy Melville. I knew what they were, but for the first time, it occurred to me that I could actually wear them.
For forty-eight hours, tabis filled the eleven open tabs that, without fault, keep shop on my laptop. I was obsessed. Two days later, I walked into a vintage store on the Lower East Side and saw a pair of pale yellow Margiela tabi sneakers. They pointed their little camel toe hooves in my direction. Serendipity. Ninety degrees in August New York City couldn’t stop me. I put them on right then and there and walked the thirty-five blocks back to my apartment rather than getting on the subway; I wanted the world to see the new me and my split toes. Masochistic pride welcomed each blister. This felt like the next frontier crossed in my journey to fashion freedom (or maybe just weirdom).
Toes are anathema. We bemoan any confrontation with them. Bro, the dogs are out, put them away, bro. If yours are manicured, preferably in white shellac, and you’re blessed with a relatively equal-length set, you might be able to get away with wearing flip flops. Or platforms, now, in the name of JLo or Paris Hilton. But if you have that alienish second toe that meets or passes the big one, forget it. Your toes will be forever condemned to that little cell we call a shoe. But all of a sudden, something terrible has happened. A shoe has gotten itself born, a shoe that, instead of shielding, forces us to come face to face with the abhorrent reality of the toe.
In reality, the tabi isn’t a nascent phenomenon, even if its ubiquitousness on Instagram is. Martin Margiela started his own brand in 1989 after leaving Jean Paul Gaultier. Inspiration for the split toe shoe comes from Japan, dating back all the way to the fifteenth century. Initially, the split toe was in sock-form. Separation of the big toe from the rest was said to promote clear headedness and equilibrium. The sock fit perfectly under the thonged-sandal of the day. Initially worn only by the rich due to cotton shortages, the sock became more quotidian, and then it became a shoe worn mostly by Japanese workers. The split-toe can still be found in Japan, sold by brands like SOU-SOU and even Nike. But Maison Margiela dominates the industry of (literally and figuratively) divisive footwear, by a longshot.
I grapple with the question of too far, namely, when is something avant-garde, thought provoking and when is it just plain ugly? There was a time when runners were wearing those shoes with the ten little frog toes. No one was offering up a half-grand for those. But then again, that was before weird was cool. Are tabis really any different from Vibram’s FiveFingers: The Original Barefoot Toe Shoes?
I think yes, but I can’t say exactly why. There has been a cultural shift towards the weird. We layer pants and dresses, we pair heeled boots with adidas shorts, we insult the grace of a kitten heel by introducing the schlub of a knee length cargo short. And now, we’re walking around with a wedgie between our toes.
My friends, who are only starting to come around to the idea that Onitsuka Tigers don’t actually say “I do shrooms and bang on the drums in my parents basement” ridiculed me. Strangers ask me, is it two and three or is it one and four? (It’s one and four.) I’ve had little kids point and laugh until their parents shush them (or join them). Though my friends told me I better not wear those things in college, I wore them on day two of class, on a campus where Vejas are the big dogs (no pun intended). I have a lot of weird shit in my closet but the tabis split like no other.