Fashion

The return of split-toe footwear leaves fashion world cloven


Fashion’s love affair with weird footwear has led to unlikely trends for clogs, wellies and even the much-derided Crocs flourishing during coronavirus lockdowns. The latest may test even the most style-devoted: split-toe shoes.

Toe-curling for some, split-toe shoes have recently been seen in the most high fashion places. This week, Rihanna wore Balenciaga’s “five-finger” boots with an individual “sock” for each toe.

Balenciaga’s ‘five-finger’ X Vibram boots.
Balenciaga’s ‘five-finger’ X Vibram boots. Photograph: Balenciaga

This month, Matthew Williams included a pair of high-heeled sandals with three loops around the toes in his first Givenchy collection, a look that was compared on social media to Scooby-Doo’s paws, while Vogue described the trend as “status toe”.

The tabi boot, a design with one split at the front, which was first designed by Martin Margiela in 1988, is being discovered by a new generation, and featured among the eye-catching costumes designed by Sex and the City’s Patricia Field for Netflix’s Emily in Paris this month.

An attendee of a Giorgio Armani runway show in Milan in 2015 sports Margiela tabi shoes.
An attendee of a Giorgio Armani runway show in Milan in 2015 sports Margiela tabi shoes. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

The designs recall the 1970s trend for divided toe socks and fit into a wider interest in that decade in fashion. But it is 90s nostalgia that could be responsible for the resurgence of the split toe.

Tabi boots were popular with the fashion crowd in the 90s. Williams’ sandal was a homage to a 1997 Alexander McQueen shoe.

Split-toed trainers released by Nike and Reebok also recall the decade, and the Air Rift trainer, which was released in 1996.

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The fact that most people would probably balk at wearing hoof-like footwear with a £650 price tag has helped the Margiela tabi become a favourite of those truly committed to the fashion cause, among them fashion editors and influencers, in recent years.

“It is still a very pioneering style, that hasn’t dated,” said Cassie Smart, head of womenswear buying at Matchesfashion.com, adding that it was now “an effortless investment piece, almost collectible”. There’s even an entire Instagram account, @margielatab1, devoted to the design. It has 43,600 followers.

Margiela’s shoe is partially based on the flat jika-tabi shoes worn by workers in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century.

The design detail dates back to the 15th century, when split-toe socks were worn with thonged sandals, and its use by western fashion houses has sometimes been subject to questions over cultural appropriation.

Itoi Kuriyama, a Tokyo-based fashion writer, has seven pairs and says: “I think it’s OK to refer to the culture.”

In fact, she says the Margiela design are commonplace now, meaning the reactions have changed since she began wearing them 20 years ago: “I’ve been told that it’s like an animal’s foot, but [the design] is rarely surprising now because it’s popular among many people in Japan.”

As for foot health, some people find split-toed comfortable – particularly the trainers – while the five-toed shoes were first designed for barefoot running.

Emma McConnachie, a member of the College of Podiatry council, said the health impact of wearing shoes such as these all depended on foot type. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that shoe type caused pain between the toes and possibly even corns from the pressure. Ingrown toenails wouldn’t be out of the question either,” she said.

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