When a Japanese Object of Status Becomes a Fashion Icon

In the last few years, we have seen many big brands moving more and more towards the taste of the Asian customers in order to exploit new fast-growing markets. Generalizing and very much simplifying the situation, very often we have seen a reinterpretation in a more eastern fashion of classic western pieces. 

During the 80s and the 90s, it was happening exactly the opposite. Asia wasn’t a market to conquer commercially, but more an intriguing source of inspiration for designers in the fashion industry. Today we will talk about one of the most famous old school example of this trend: the Tabi shoes. 

First, let’s briefly check where the Tabi comes from. 

It all begins from a Japanese sock – in fact, called Tabi sock – that had a special division for the big toe allowing the use also with the typical Japanese sandals. After cotton was imported from China in the 15th century, the use of the sock became so widespread the the emperor had to control the production. As for the Ottoman empire ‘Nalın’ (mentioned in the previous post) the socks became a way of hierarchically identifying the status of a person according to the different dye. Only certain classes were in fact allowed to use certain colors. 

Japonese Tabi Socks

Fast forward to the 20th century and thanks to the use of rubber, a simple sole was added to the Tabi socks and the first pair of Tabi shoes was born – credit for the invention was given to the founder of Bridgeston, (i.e. the biggest tire producing company in the world nowadays)

The young aspiring designer from Antwerp, Martin Margiela arrives in Japan in the 80s while still a student and sees the Tabi for the first time. In 1989, for his first women collection, Margiela decides to shock the world of fashion with a new take on the Tabi shoe. Walking down the catwalk the models were wearing red Tabi boots freshly painted in red, so that the unconventional shape of the sole was permanently marked on the white catwalk at every step.

Margiela’s First women collection, 1989.

The appreciation for the idea was so big that the catwalk-turned-into-canvas was transformed into a waistcoat look that opened the next show of the brand. Nobody thought that the Tabi was going to last for more than a season, but instead it became such a symbol that Margiela carried on with new iterations of the model for the last 25 years. 

Margiela’s Tabi over the years, Source: Another Magazine

Even if Margiela can be defined as the “brand ambassador” in the west for the Tabi, a few other brands over the years have shown their own take of the Japanese classic: Nike went for a sport sandal that had a few different model starting from the end of the 90’s and Prada for the 2013 ready to wear collection chose the Tabi as an inspiration. 

Nike Air Rifts

Thanks to the vision of a Belgian designer in the 80s, the Tabi shoe has become one of the most iconic pieces of all time.

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