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Why Would You Want a Camel Toe on Your Foot? (2017)

Martin Margiela’s 'Tabi Boot' (also simply known as 'Tabi') usually elicits one of two reactions: either a shock-horror response, followed by the calling out of the ugly appearance in a sentiment disbelief; or an excited one, allied with a feeling of sympathy—a result which could be attributed to the person’s insight of the history of the 'Tabi'.In contrast to the notoriety and admiration offered by the fashion savvy, the weird appearance of the shoes is not easily accepted by the masses—rendering them a greatly polarizing object. The controversial turning point is the indent at the forefront of the shoe that separates the big toe from the others, a particularity known to cause aesthetic indescribability; split-toe footwear is renowned for making people uncomfortable—what some regard as “psychologically unsettling”.

The Margiela 'Tabi Boot' takes evident inspiration from the Japanese tabi, a type of sock that have been around since the 15th century, originally created to pair with ‘thonged’ footwear (such as geta and zori) in traditional Japanese attire. The tabi have long been a part of Japan’s cultural legacy, and in the beginning of the 20th century were transformed by the owner of a tire company to include rubber soles.These outdoor tabi, termed jika-tabi (translating to “tabi that contact the ground”), provided more agility on the feet, and later become popularized as a symbol for martial arts.

The jika-tabi’s popularity inspired international sports companies, who remodelled the tabi shape into running shoes, yet these editions failed to meet overall commercial success. Nike, for example, admits to releasing their ‘tabi’ trainers, the Air Rift, in limited runs due to an initially strange response from their wider public when launched in 1996.

We can speculate that it’s the unfamiliarity and a lack of culture of toe dressing habits in the West that causes the predominant drawback. As psychologists defend, we like the things we like due to a complex process of assimilation, involving social and cultural familiarity, whereby the network of things we like grows in tandem to the things within our culture and the familiar customs of our upbringing. This occurs in roughly the same way Netflix and Pandora suggestion algorithms function—you’re likely to want more of what you already like. The “guilty pleasure” (to many, the 'Tabi Boots') is an interesting glitch in the code—a result of wanting to uphold your veneer of taste, to carefully arrange your bookshelf, to self-curate your life on Instagram- to privatise your Spotify when streaming the High School Musical soundtrack.

The foreign contour to the foot that the 'Tabi' outlines is the one unsettling factor that makes it so symbolic. Martin Margiela first presented the 'Tabi' at the launch of the eponymous Maison on the 23rd of October 1988 at the debut collection for S/S ’89. Margiela, in a rare interview with Geert Bruloot, has revealed that he “wanted to create an ‘invisible’ shoe, the illusion of a bare foot walking on a high, chunky heel”. Still, he wanted to call to the attention to the shoe’s defying shape, and so directed the models walk on red paint prior to entering the runway, so that the strange footprints would lustre on the white catwalk.

The 'Tabi' would then become a sta-ple of the brand, and would reappear in almost all of the subsequent collections. Margiela revealed to Bruloot in the same interview that this recurrence was initially a necessity due to budget constraints, having presented the exact same set of shoes from the A/W ‘89 show in his S/S ’90 collection- only in the case of the latter they were drenched in a layer of white wall-paint. The shoes became very much esteemed by Margiela’s following and fashion editors of the time, and given the positive reception of the 'Tabi', it was appointed for replication in order to generate revenue. These reiterations would come to act as bookmarks for the designer’s influences and evolution. Now archival pieces, early 'Tabi' models share the same rough and demonstrative, DIY attitude of the first collections. The 28-year reign of the shoe has awarded it an iconic status in the fashion domain.


The language used around this shoe makes an inadvertent link to the animal kingdom—with references to ‘camel toe’, ‘cloven foot’, and ‘footprints’, not to mention Marigela’s material choice for the original 'Tabi' —a ‘nude’ coloured animal-sourced leather. The shoe comes to act as a case study for the obscure admiration for Nature within fashion: clothes mimic organic nature whereas the living human body engulfs itself in the inorganic (synthetic cosmetics, plastic-derivative clothes). As argued by Walter Benjamin in his fragmentary investigation of the shopping arcades of Paris, “fashion stands in opposition to the organic”[1]. For Benjamin, fashion reads as a fetishist allegiance between life and death. Sexual fetishism eroticizes inanimate things—like shoes—“it is at much at home with what is dead as with living flesh”. Coating the body in a protective skin of defiant vulnerability, passing itself as already dead.

Bear Grylls, in an episode of Man vs. Wild, famously takes shelter from the Sahara Desert’s severe elements inside a camel’s carcass—“to survive attempts on its life, the fragile organism coats itself in a layer of death”[2]. Bear Grylls’ camel is the same as Margiela’s. The ‘camel toe’ boot rests at the border of anxiety and opportunity. Hannah Proctor writes, running this thought through Freud, that “perhaps there are other reasons for wishing to substitute warm and vulnerable flesh for a hard and unyielding object”, she says, “such metamorphoses are necessary to survive”[3]. The cold shell of fashion is screwy, it is already dead yet temporally immortal. It shrugs off the body’s chronologies. Fashion is cyclical, nostalgic and futuristic[4]. The dead camel foot lives on. “Fashion mocks death”, as Benjamin puts it.

These protective enclosures—Gryll’s camel or Margiela’s boots—mediate the body’s exposure to the elements. The metamorphoses of covering flesh with a layer of death are a direct manifestation with our relation to the environment. “Corporeal exposure is mediated more and more by individualized and adaptable protective enclosures”[5]. Fashion, an enclosure sitting on the flesh, is Deleuze’s definition of a mold “articulated in an ‘analogical’ common language”[6]. As we break free from the enclosure, in a cultural shift from discipline to control societies, we are moving away from the mold into modulation. In the realm of fashion, this is articulated with the emergence of tech-wearables and the quantified-self movement. These devices break the mold, self-deforming, adapting and soaking into the skin. The relation with the body is optimized, trading the analogical for a numerical language, expanding on a database of biometric information, through a vast network of interconnected mechanisms.

This invisible aura flowing in and out of the body constitutes a daily affair, becoming part of the body’s own chronologies—an omnipresence radiating to the atmosphere. IRL and URL become seemingly closer to one and the same. Wearable tech devices report on the body’s vulnerabilities and in turn make it into a purchasable asset for third party solicitors. The database of information binds the body to the technology, coerced by the changing mechanisms of control. The information is fragmented, scattered across a sometimes-tight-sometimes-loose woven grid of mechanical agents, inciting the user into a mode of constant heedfulness, of wanting to be at full capacity, continuously keeping tabs on this progress. The data is there to make us feel more capable of addressing the world, yet this ubiquitous pressure into becoming our best selves, allied with the subdued paranoia of coaxed surveillance, fuels our anxiety.

“CONSUMER EXPERIENCES HAVE ALWAYS MADE PEOPLE ANXIOUS”[7].

Fashion operates on this anxiety. It is part of the daily domain, asserted in the everyday task of putting clothes on. This daily affair is a reminder of the body’s vulnerabilities (the necessary layers of death that protect the fragile organism), as well as a sensitive indicator of one’s own climatic expectations. Climate is, however, an abstraction over space and time that falls outside of the direct sensory experience”[8]. As Dehlia Hannah and Cynthia Selin point out, “whereas the prospect of catastrophic climate change remains on the verge of the unthinkable, clothing remains a domain of daily acknowledgment of and adjustment to our climatic horizons”. Clothing is the mediator of one’s own expectations and aspirations of climate and the embodied habituation.

This daily acknowledgment of weather works as a trigger to the recognition of the changing and unstable climatic patterns, of how climate change quietly taints our quotidian—yet the habitual engagement distances us from a sense of emergency. The act of relying on a piece of apparel as an environmental conciliator is a display of the relative levels of uncertainty of the wearer in relation to climate itself.

Fashion industry cycles (Fall/Winter, Spring/Summer) are informed by natural climatic patterns that are no longer stable, yet recent trends tend to embody a conscience of the looming environmental catastrophe. This is articulated with the increasing adaptation of technologically innovative materials, often borrowed from military use (see Stone Island, for example.) This subdued form of paranoia in the form of garments, eventually evolve into trends that normalize the constant threat. As K-HOLE proclaim, “turning anxiety into opportunity it’s what fashion, in the best case scenario, can do: make you more capable of addressing the world”[9].

Being encapsulated in this muffled form of anxiety inside the shield of fashion, with the latest update vibrating on the skin, has triggered a desire for a simpler way of life. A return to basics, escaping to a rural, “natural”, state. The notions of rural and urban have, of course, evolved from the distinguished spatial ideas of city and country. The urban is seen to increasingly outgrow traditional scales[10], as the divide between urban and rural has blurred, with tech-cities generating such enormous quantities of data that its housing is seen sprawling to the countryside in manufacturing estates and data farms. Indeed, we can no longer comprehend the urban as an isolated space, confined to any particular scale. In its trans-scalar ontology, urbanization reveals itself treading deserts and arctic regions—it exists in the atmosphere, it has no scale.

Escaping, therefore, is no longer a matter of disconnecting, of regressing to a non-connected time. It’s instead a matter of going where the weave of the net is looser, where the trapezoids in the grid become more spacious and angular.

“IT’S ALMOST NO LONGER A MATTER OF GOING OFF THE GRID—IT’S A MATTER OF GOING TO WHERE THE GRID IS BIG ENOUGH.”[11]

Venturing into the “wild” is engulfed in a sense of malaise. Though exhaustive, readily available data analysis works to counteract this feeling; the sense of adventure isn’t nevertheless lost. The technological gear we surround ourselves with to remedy these feelings of disquiet is subject to thorough testing before coming in contact with our bodies, yet the testing environment removes the subject it is trying to protect the most—the human. Instead, these experiments are performed on lab animals and/or anthropomorphic dummies, voiding the human experience in all its complexities (economic, social, etc.) from the testing grounds.

Charting to the unknown is a playground for human experimentation, and thus human failure. Technology is therefore inadvertently pushing the body closer to a position of danger that it is trying to avoid. No matter the size of the tech-armour (where there is also no guarantee it won’t fail)—the first step is a moment of defiance.

“EVERY AESTHETIC TRACE, EVERY FOOTPRINT OF AN OBJECT, SPARKLES WITH ABSENCE. SENSUAL THINGS ARE ELEGIES TO THE DISAPPEARANCE OF OBJECTS.”[12]

Footprints account for a physical moment, binding the body to a specific time and space—they are archaeological evidence of an object and its relation to the environment. They mark the rite of passage of addressing the world, stepping out into the unknown. A carbon footprint is the evidence of a being’s relation with the planet—it is an invisible footprint, accounting for the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of a body’s activities in a given time frame. The body’s relation with the environment is therefore reciprocal, and fashion is the object with which it mediates this relation. The body’s operations are marked on the ground and traced in the atmosphere, the same way the materials the body surrounds itself with leave their mark and effect on it. A perspective that sees clothing as “body supplements” that “act as alterants of body processes as they serve simultaneously as microphysical environment and as interface between body and the macrophysical environment”[13].

The footprint accounts for this relation, and as is true with fashion, will outlive the body’s lifecycle, even perhaps the body of the body in form of the boot.

Nuclear radiation will have fallout lasting upwards of 24,110 years[14]. The carcasses of camels and boots will decay. How long will the footprint last?


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