There is no shoe quite as divisive as the Tabi. Inspired by the shape of a 15th Century Japanese sock and translated into its now well-known form by Martin Margiela for his debut collection in 1988, the hoof-like creation is—love it or hate it—an enduring icon. A shock at first, it has become a staple of the art and fashion worlds, appearing on the feet of creatives and iconoclasts year after year. It has inspired countless imitations, from Prada’s 2012 red split toe booties to Vetements’ controversial FW18 appropriation. But is it art?
The creative director Sidney Prawatyotin, who runs the popular fashion meme Instagram account @siduations, purchased a too-tight women’s version in black before the house started releasing the style in men’s sizes a few years ago. “I didn’t really wear them, I just held onto them. To me, they’re like sculptures, you know?” Prawatyotin says. “They look like a piece of art.” Instead, he installed them on a low shelf. “They were too precious for me to place on the floor. Also, I just liked to look at them. They became part of the house, like one of Nicole Wermers’ ‘Untitled Chairs,’ which I don’t own,” he added, referring to a series by the German artist that features opulent fur coats slung over Breuer chairs.
But beyond those who appreciate the form of the shoes themselves, there is a cohort of artists and creatives—some of them oddly secretive—who have found a muse in the shoe’s unique shape. Olivia Rose, the mind behind sculpture-cum-plant-holder outfit Original Rose, is among them. “Part of my work is curating the absolute classic, iconic pieces of fashion and memorializing them through the casting process,” said Rose from New York City, where she reimagines standouts like the Tabi, the Balenciaga SSS and Nike Dunks as permanent resin pieces dressed up with flowers. “Something that you’ve loved for so long is now something that you can interact with in a new way, so it doesn’t have to live in the back of your closet,” she explained. “It’s a piece that transcends just the utility of wearing it.”
“The Tabi holds flowers like a leg slipping into the boot,” Rose says. “I feel like you could definitely do a wonderful Ikebana in a Tabi boot.” For Rose, the Tabi is ripe for experimentation and re-invention. “I really enjoy this translation of taking something that was in one world but bringing it to another,” she mused.
There’s also Idea Generale, a design firm founded by an Italian couple, Saidi Bruni and Alfredo Garbugli, who create handcrafted ceramic Tabi sculptures in Pesaro, Italy. Alexandra Sipa, a Central Saint Martins graduate with a beautiful sustainable women's ready-to-wear line, made colorful repurposed lace Tabi “footprints” for a photo shoot. There even exists a massive Tabi sculpture the size of Keanu Reeves in the care of two Los Angeles creatives, who have sworn never to reveal the name of the artist who created it. (One sent me a photo of them picking the sculpture up in the back of a pickup truck on the condition that it would remain unseen.) In London, the artist and product designer Ying Chang integrated a Tabi boot into a sculpture as a part of her ongoing project “skin deep,” which consists of found and pre-loved objects coated in silicone. She cast the Tabi in the rather unusual material, then peeled off the pastel layers to partially reveal the shoe.
Sipa’s work was a commission from the label itself for the launch of John Galliano’s new Recicla Tabi, a sustainably-minded boot crafted from recovered fine leathers. “I’ve dreamt about something like this since I was a student. Everyone at CSM is obsessed with Maison Margiela. It’s kind of like the peak,” said Sipa, who spoke from her home in Romania, where she’s preparing her new collection. “I thought about Martin Margiela’s first show, the one where he painted the models’ feet in red then they left those traces behind. That made me think of that being a metaphor for the things that a brand leaves behind when they’re creating something. And that’s how I got the idea to create those Tabi footprints that would basically show how the Recicla Tabi is living in harmony with nature rather than taking from it. They are leaving something better behind.”
For Idea Generale—whose custom Tabi ceramics can be purchased in the color of your choosing on their website or through Instagram DM—the concept to make a Tabi sculpture was organic and driven by personal obsession.
“She’s mad about [the shoe]. She wears them every day, all day, no matter which situation,” said Garbugli of his girlfriend, who was in the studio making new pieces when we connected on Zoom. “So, parties, dinners, working on the vases, taking the dog out. It’s a simple idea. It has a selective audience. It’s really something just for the fans.”
The industrial designer sees the sculptures as true classics. “Like everything that takes shape from nature or the body, I consider it functional and simple,” Garbugli said. “And when something is functional and simple, if you do your design work well, it also comes out beautiful. And that’s what a Tabi is.”
This flourish of Tabi art comes just as we prepare to get dressed and slip on the ‘real’ thing once again. The house recently dropped red leather Reebok Tabis and techno-friendly Instapump Fury Tabis. Hunter Schafer wore a pair of black Tabi Instapump Furys on the streets of New York earlier this year. Cardi B posed for an Instagram shot in a classic white calf leather pair with a matching white Birkin at home.
“The Tabi changes the way you see the anatomy of the body. It’s subversive, and a little kinky,” said Sipa. “It is a simple and beautiful idea.”