Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Tabi appreciation & Review: Sou Sou Tabis

I recently bought my first pair of tabi shoes. Although it hasn't come up much on this blog, I really appreciate traditional Japanese clothing. Tabi shoes, workwear, geta and all things kimono. There is this strong theme throughout Japanese clothing that I think I can easily identify and wholeheartedly love although I can't adequately describe it. Sometimes I wonder whether it's something inherent in the clothing or if it is just the fact that I really used to like anime and manga when I was a teenager and it somehow sowed the seed deep inside.

Female peddler in work clothing
Near Kyoto, ~1900
But back to tabi shoes. Most people who are interested in Japan are probably aware of tabis, those toe socks that may be worn with geta and zori sandals. Then there is Jika-tabi, literally "tabi that touch the ground"*, a sort of proletarian, manual labour version of the tabi socks. These aren't just socks but actual shoes made of sturdier material with a rubberized sole. They still keep the key features of the socks: a tight fit and the split toe. Presumably because of anime and manga you will also find this type of shoe sold as ninja shoes by international sellers of all things Japanese. To me the tabi shoes are more interesting than the sock/sandal combination, because I generally prefer the sort of rural, lower class, practical, rough looks over polished and purely ornamental clothing.

Margiela tabi boots
Not being an expert of fashion history it seems like tabi shoes were elevated from traditional Japanese workwear to international high fashion primarily by Maison Martin Margiela. Margiela has produced a variety of gorgeous tabi style leather boots. I've always loved the look of them but even second hand these boots are expensive and hard to find. They are definitely high on my list of things to look out for in second hand stores when I actually visit Japan.

Fashion shoot by i-D
Since I can't get my hands on the Margiela boots I have settled on getting a pair of shoes that look almost exactly the same except for the lack of split toes (so let's be honest, they are nothing like the Margielas). I've also often considered getting these tabi shoes sold by international sellers, but I'm wary of anything marketed to weeaboos and sold for as little as 40€.

As it so happened my interest in tabi shoes was rekindled when I visited the "Karneval der Kulturen" (carnival of cultures) in Berlin, a sort of parade of culture associations that present their nation with music, costumes and dance. This year I had the pleasure of seeing Japan represented by Kashiwa Ren carrying a 40 year old Mikoshi (a portable shrine). The music was nice, the people seemed motivated (how could you not be with a shrine on your shoulders) and there were tabi, lots of tabi. Festivals are another common occasion to wear tabi shoes.

My favorite Japanese modernist writer Yukio Mishma carrying a shrine and wearing tabis, how could I not include this?
 Summer Festival of Kumano Shrine, 1956
As my love for tabi shoes had been rekindled I set out to find a nice pair for summer. My initial thought - as with many things - was to get black ones, but I just had to look at my shoe collection once to realize that I have more than enough black shoes. So I decided to go with white tabis instead. It is summer after all and my wardrobe is a lot lighter now. The pictures above might also have helped form this idea.

Sou Sou tabis
I spend some time looking at those international sellers of Japanese items that sell cheap tabi shoes (they all seem to have orange rubber soles for some reason), but I couldn't find any shop with decent picture that sold my desired height and style. This was actually rather fortunate because I eventually ended up coming across Sou Sou. Sou Sou is a Kyoto based store that sells traditional Japanese inspired clothing. Most interesting to me is their wide variety of tabi shoes that look both decently manufactured - more than just ninja cosplay gimmicks - and also come in a variety of unique patterns. From solid color, white and black and gold to dazzle camouflage.

Dazzle camouflage. As one can't actually hide ships this camouflage is supposed to obscure the shape, orientation and speed of the ship, to "dazzle" the enemy.
Sou Sou has an American store. Unfortunately that on didn't have the white tabis, listed as festival tabis, I wanted in stock (it also seems to sell a lot more stereotypical "Asian" designs), so I had to buy from the Japanese website instead. Considering the costly international shipping from America this was actually cheaper too. $110 + $32 shipping versus ¥9874 + ¥2800 (~$115).

Nothing on the Japanese site suggests that it is possible to buy from outside of Japan and international buyers are forwarded to the American site. If you actually try to check something out however the address data form offers the option to mark your prefecture as "abroad" and on the following delivery method page one can actually select EMS shipping to Asia, EU, America etc. I put my German address into the the Japanese address form and also put the full German address into the comment field to be sure they get it. For international customers payment is Paypal only. I soon received an English confirmation mail and quickly another mail with the tracking number. For customs plagued nations: the parcel was marked as gift.

I was really relieved when I got the tabis and they weren't too big. I followed the measuring guide on the Sou Sou site but ended up being in a spot where rounding up to the bigger size was a big step. With socks they fit just right. Because my feet are rather wide than long I don't fill the toe part out completely but they are fairly tight around the ankle. There is two rows for attaching the closing clasps and I'm wearing it on the bigger one. The shoes are designed with a slender ankle in mind.

I don't have anything bad to say about the quality of the shoes. They are well manufactured. No glue spill or shape that fights the human body - as is sometimes the case with poorly designed patterns. With socks they actually feel rather thick despite being the summer variation. The fabric on the inside is patterned with black and white stripes that look somewhat like dripping paint. This pattern is slightly visible from the outside through the white outer layer. They come with an insole.

"Kabukimono"(x) tabi by Sou Sou

I'm really happy with the way the tabis look worn and already have my eyes on other Sou Sou tabis. The dazzle camouflage ones are quite intriguing to me, black tabis would be swell too and then I regretfully found their selection of leather tabis. They aren't quite on par with Margiela shoes and only a little cheaper.

*According to wikipedia