is the ‘toe shoe’ trend a step too far?

In this week's episode of i-D podcast, Fash-ON Fash-OFF, we ask, whether we're witnessing the rise of the next big footwear trend, or the thing to finally push ‘ugly’ design into the realm of flat-out parody.

by Douglas Greenwood
26 July 2018, 2:14pm

Image courtesy of @crimesagainstshoemanity

In 2018, the idea of ‘ugly being cool’ isn’t really news to anybody anymore. We’ve seen it on runways around the world for the best part of two years now: the garish flame shirts lifted straight from Guy Fieri’s BBQ-ready get-up recreated for the Prada runway; Raf Simons taking the orthopaedic sneaker and catalysing the world’s most divisive and discussed sneaker trend, trickling through the refreshed DNAs of brands like Balenciaga and Acne. And don’t get us started on the Crocs revival. But there’s one trend that’s as befuddling to us as it is fascinating; the kind that could finally push this widespread appropriation of ‘ugly’ design into the realm of flat-out parody.

Toe shoes.

This fetishistic and strange trend came to our attention after the 2019 cruise shows this summer after Vogue took note of the skin-crawling style stomping down Loewe’s runway, courtesy of Jonathan Anderson. For their resort collection, crocheted slip-ons were fashioned to resemble bare feet with french-manicured nails and toe rings -- think of those comical socks you got for Christmas as a kid. There was also a pair of gladiator sandals that took the style to a level of extravagance: the leather uppers embossed to replicate the big toes of a Roman soldier.

But it wasn’t just Jonathan jumping on the trend either. Recently, MM6 Margiela unveiled their latest slant on the iconic tabi shoe: a mule version that amped up the hooved design to separate each toe in a way that really messed with our heads. Think they’re hideous? Maybe you just don’t get it: the style sold out before many could get their hands on them.

They say you can tell a lot about somebody by the shoes they wear, so if we’re starting to form our judgement working from the bottom up, you can imagine why today’s biggest shoes are all so-called ‘statement’ styles.

Perhaps what makes us feel so strongly about these weird styles is their fantastical nature; the way many of them seem almost costume-like rather than items of everyday wear. As the maximalist trend shows little sign of slowing down, are we witnessing the rise of its next big footwear trend, or questioning whether our desire to look different has made us all wind up looking like our egos have got the better of us?

After all, before these designers got their hands on it, the toe shoe existed to make everybody within a 10 metre radius feel uncomfortable in its presence. Prior to its luxury re-up, the staple toe-championing style was created by Vibram -- the same people behind the Rollingait sole that, funnily enough, has gone from hiking boots to Galliano’s runways in the past few years -- and goes by the name of the ‘FiveFingers’ shoe.

Worn mainly by older, bike-riding men and young hippies in cargo shorts who struggle to leave the house without an acoustic guitar strewn over their shoulder, they were the epitome of disastrous fashion; a sure-fire sign that someone favoured the notion of comfort and practicality over the idea of looking good.

But when you think about it, even then they were a pretty subversive item. While anybody’s dad could have worn a pair of ugly trainers a few years back with nobody batting an eyelid, the toe-shoe provokes a singular and strong reaction from everybody who lays eyes on it. In that respect, does it not make sense that luxury designers would appropriate the style, slotting that provocation into their own brand’s narrative?

Today, the flexing of our brand loyalty manifests on our feet. In the Q2 report of this year’s Lyst index, which highlights the world’s most fawned over pieces of luxury fashion, the top five men’s items were all footwear; either pool sliders (we can thank Celine for that ugly shoe renaissance), Yeezy’s, or the now iconic Triple S sneakers from Balenciaga. On the women’s list, the only two new styles to crack the top 10 were Fila’s appropriately named ‘Disruptor’ sneaker and Demna’s now famous Balenciaga platform Crocs. They say you can tell a lot about somebody by the shoes they wear, so if we’re starting to form our judgement working from the bottom up, you can imagine why today’s biggest shoes are all so-called ‘statement’ styles.

We laugh at it, but the clout gained from having the wider public know about what you create -- usually through the tabloids or the contemporary equivalent, social media -- is half the fun for designers anyway. In McQueen’s day, his ascent from Central Saint Martins kid into the upper echelons of luxury fashion was part and parcel of his runway shows. His theatrical set ups drew attention; for many, the clothes were merely an afterthought.

But with today’s budgets somewhat tighter than they were back then, theatrics are something designers have to be much more methodical with. If they can condense that shock value into something like a shoe, the benefit is twofold. For one, the tabloid media love it, thus increasing brand visibility. Then, those who can actually fork out cash for these things are willing to do so, safe in the knowledge that revellers in the street can point at their feet -- in awe, disgust or total jealousy.

But does that constitute remarkable design, or just make us all seem mildly insane? Five years ago, the idea of seeking out a shoe that championed our phalanges, or channelled Vibram’s toe-y, amphibious style on the runway might have seemed ludicrous, but in 2018, its existence is merely a sign of the times. After all, fashion is rooted in appropriation, fun and homage. Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe creations -- whether they’re crocheted footsy slip-ons or the bulbous Gladiator sandals -- might be an acquired taste, but just like the multitude of trends that have come before it, we now, as buyers, have the power to let it sink or swim.

Something tells me we’ll be watching it do the latter, though. After all, we could have this ‘too far’ argument about maximalist, unsubtle design forever, constantly trying to decipher if trends like these are worth taking seriously, or making the industry look ‘silly’. But without designers like Anderson -- or Gvasalia, Philo and Galliano, for that matter -- all that we’d be left to talk about was affable, pretty clothes. Don’t know about you, but we’d take a pair of toe-shoes over that any day.

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