What are American metropolises if not hotbeds for garden-variety burglars and loons? So the first thing to note is that if the charming stranger in this story had filched the woman’s cash or credit cards or phone, no one would have blinked. The thief would have faded into the background — just another tale of grandmotherly warning about being careful whom you let through your door.
But the loot in this particular crime proved too odd to brush off, and so the episode hot-glued itself to New York City’s consciousness for a stretch of September. Here’s how it began: Alexis Dougé, a 25-year-old social-media manager and knitwear designer, invited a stylish, mustached 23-year-old man over to her place. Come morning, she discovered the man had deleted his information from her phone and smoothly vanished — along with a pair of her shoes. And not just any ordinary shoes: This was a gleaming, rakish set of Maison Margiela Tabis, notable for their signature cleft toe and retailing for $990 before tax.
In a video that has since garnered nearly 1.5 million views, Dougé unloaded her grief onto TikTok, cautioning fellow “NYC fashion girlies” to keep close eyes on their belongings. Just a few hours later, citizen detectives were already closing out their manhunt for the wily “Tabi swiper.” The culprit, it turns out, had given Dougé’s shoes to his then girlfriend, who was happily posting about her new kicks on Instagram. Vigilantes collected information and informed Dougé, who confronted the poacher with the evidence. “Ight you got me,” he texted back, employing a GIF of a guilty shoulder shrug. “I’ll get them back to you give me a time and place.” In an almost suspiciously perfect finale, Dougé and two friends filmed the handover, as the man sheepishly relinquished the stolen goods and rode off on a bicycle.
All this is funneled through Dougé’s narration, leaving questions galore. How did the man target the right size? Did he really think he could get away with it? Had he learned nothing from “West Elm Caleb”? The Tabi swiper gets no nuanced biography here; depending on your degree of sympathy for property crime, he is merely a clownish dolt, an enterprising popinjay or a graceful, sartorially minded sociopath. Neither villain nor victim is the main character of this saga. The leading role belongs to another: the world’s most reviled shoes.
Here’s where I disclose: I am a member of the cloven-hoofed. I own, and adore, Tabis.
Tabis provoke near-universal squirms from onlookers, which is precisely the source of their appeal. Margiela, inspired by 15th-century Japanese design, first sent them down the runway in 1988. A long, leather-seamed cleft segregates the big toe from the rest of the foot, an arrangement that is apparently capable of triggering monstrous discomfort in the human brain. Walking around in Tabis is an act of aggression, akin to whispering “moist” and “cusp” into people’s ears over and over. This animalistic silhouette is a semi-sexual, quasi-vaginal trompe l’oeil that embarrasses the onlooker twice: once for looking so closely at the wearer’s feet, and again for being so conventional as to find the view shocking.
Part of the reason for their MacBook Air price tag — which, in my defense, can come down significantly if you charge into sale season with fast fingers — is their role as both a cipher and a Sorting Hat of taste. Like Patagonia vests or Telfar bags, Tabis come freighted with tribal meaning. To embrace the split toe is to consciously buck the mainstream. This has made Tabis a kind of secret handshake for an in-crowd of fashion buffs and cultural connoisseurs: “Look at me,” the shoes proclaim, “a creative person with highbrow sensibilities, rebelling against the normies.” As the fashion writer Rachel Tashjian put it, Tabis are “to the art world what Allbirds are to tech.” They belong to the broad category of IYKYK (“if you know, you know”) fashion. But while most such garments are militantly subtle, broadcasting only to fellow insiders — the Row’s unbranded tailoring, black T-shirts from Rick Owens, anything Comme des Garçons (not from Play) or Céline (before Hedi Slimane nixed the accent) — Tabis are an even ruder in-joke: They openly dare you to consider them ugly or revolting, exposing yourself as a commoner.
After the Tabi-swiper story went viral — just before New York Fashion Week, no less — the search term “Tabis” crested to a five-year peak on Google, suggesting many of the saga’s followers may have been freshly discovering the shoe. And yet the frenzied discourse around the theft has been flooded with chest-beating, virtue-signaling IYKYKism. For days, cool-crowd magazines and influencers pumped out softly patronizing “explainers” aimed at people insufficiently hip to understand dropping 165 pumpkin spice lattes’ worth of cash on an unsightly shoe. Even spectators fought to prove themselves as knowing aesthetes. (“How he got the shoes outside your apartment” reads one of the top comments on Dougé’s video, to which another confidently responds, “fashion guys always have their lil purse.”) Onlookers seemed to care less about retrieving stolen property or exposing misbehavior than about closing ranks, patrolling and reinforcing the boundaries of the in-group. Perhaps the thief had displayed good taste in desiring the Tabis but offended the cognoscenti by approaching them in such a deceitful way: Not only did he steal Dougé’s totem of belonging, but he tried to give it to someone else. What the man purloined wasn’t just a pair of shoes but something like an emblem of identity. The tribe automatically rejected this, balking not just at a thief but at that all-too-embarrassing figure: the try-hard.
There’s a built-in paradox to IYKYK clothes, though: The more you wear things, the more people come to know about them. Tabis, despite their prideful nonconformity, have been worn by Nick Jonas and Dua Lipa and the marquess of the mainstream, Kylie Jenner; even the maladroit fashionista of Netflix’s “Emily in Paris” has a pair. Virgil Abloh once got around this type of problem by differentiating between the “tourists” who pile on to an item of cult intrigue and the “purists” who live and breathe it. But who ever begins as a “purist”? When a discerning art friend first introduced me to Tabis, I feigned indifference, sensing this was a litmus test of some sort. It was only after studying up on the hooves’ vestiary lore that I began to genuinely appreciate their mischief. Perhaps the Tabi-swiper saga resonated so widely because it was a reminder of how we all start off stealing and faking our way into sophistication — working long and hard to mimic the more polished palates of others, all the while pretending our good taste came naturally.
A week ago, a Lower East Side bar invited me to a “Surviving the Tabi Swindler” party. The gathering, a publicist explained, was intended to help Dougé shrug off the online vitriol and backlash she had inevitably been subjected to. (Also to promote her knitwear brand.) I hesitated, but, caving at the last minute to social anxiety, I showed up wearing Tabis. So did Dougé. So did a sizable portion of the crowd, because the bar was offering a free cocktail to anyone sporting them. This prompted a visual uniformity that I first found funny, then disorienting, then irritating. Seeing that prized trotter silhouette repeated all over everyone’s feet in a squeezed little space, subversion giving way to orthodoxy, filled me with a new, inchoate sort of aversion. When I got home at the end of the night, I found myself kicking off my shoes with relief.
Source photographs for photo illustration: Alexis Dougé; Han Myung-Gu/WireImage, via Getty Images.