The First Split

Nike’s Air Rift with the tabi-like toes debuted in 1996. They still look temptingly current

The Maison Margiela X Rebook Classic Leather Tabi is (still) trending now. Launched last month, it is, as imaginable, mostly sold out. At USD300 a pair, these are not exactly affordable luxury (resellers are reportedly now flipping them for USD1,000). The Classic Leather Tabi is not, however, the first split-toe sneaker to be available. Twenty five years ago, Nike debuted the Air Rift, a silhouette so bold that it prompted sneakerheads to consider the oddity of a sneaker prized kicks. Sure, Maison Margiela’s split-toe shoe was first introduced in the spring/summer season of 1989 (six years after the Reebok Classic Leather), but it did not appear as a pair of sneakers. In fact, then still under the creative direction of its founder, the house issued them in the form of leather boots, with the almost hoof-like toe box stirring deep passions, enough that they have a place in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For some fashion folks, these were the McQueen Armadillo of that time.

Nike does not say that their Air Rift is inspired by the Japanese tabi (足袋) socks, as is the case with Margiela. According to Nike, the shoes with the velcroed Mary Jane fastening is a nod to “the efficient barefoot style of Kenyan distance runners and their international competition dominance” and are named after the Great Rift Valley in Kenya (and the OG colours are no doubt based on the country’s flag). Back then, “woke” and “inclusive” had not surfaced in product development as they are likely to these days. Designed by Kip Buck, then a model maker at Nike, the Air Rift was conceived as a running shoe (not for strolling on the beach or kicking them off in Starbucks!) that is evocative of gongfu kicks and allows wears to run like Kenyan athletes—unbound by restrictive footwear. It isn’t clear how the decoupled toe helped you feel bare-footed, but the easy-to-pack Air Rift stills enjoys a large enough following that Nike has reissued it several times.

The latest iterations in various colours are due out any time now. The versions for men and women are already launched in Japan and seen in retail stores across Hong Kong. But news of its possible appearance here is scant. We asked a staff at Nike, Jewel, about the Air Rift’s availability and he could only say, “I’m not sure.” Kids versions were reportedly seen at JD Sports. Despite its unique silhouette, the Air Rift is unlikely going to enjoy the same mass adoration as Air Jordan 1 (after the release of the super-hyped Air Dior) or Daybreak (after Nike’s pairing with Undercover). But given the yet-to-fade spotlight on the Maison Margiela X Rebook Classic Leather Tabi, who knows?

Check nike.com for issue dates and local availability. Illustration: Just So

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