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Split-toe socks and shoes find a following

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Leslie Padorr's online shop Cool East Market specializes in Japanese split-toe socks, called tabi, which are increasing in popularity in North America. (By Maylynn Quan)

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Leslie Padorr's online shop Cool East Market specializes in Japanese split-toe socks, called tabi, which are increasing in popularity in North America. (By Maylynn Quan)

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Tim Johnson operates J600.com, a website for fans of the Nike "Air Rift" line of split-toe shoes, a traditional Japanese style of footwear. Johnson's personal collection includes more than 200 pairs. (Courtesy of Tim Johnson)

People often chuckle when they look at Rhonda Sherrer-Daley’s feet. On chilly Washington evenings, she often wears brightly beaded flip-flop sandals, and, for warmth, Japanese-style split-toe socks, called tabi, which hold the big toe in a pouch, separated from the rest of the toes.

“They feel fabulous,” Sherrer-Daley said of her socks. “The only problem is, with a split toe, it looks like a cloven hoof. I call them my devil shoes.”

Tabi wearers’ feet have been likened to those of various animals: camels, llamas, lobsters. Despite raised eyebrows, split-toed shoes and socks, traditional footwear in Japan, are gaining devotees in North America. Sold on Web sites and at some Japanese specialty shops, the socks attract the fashionable, those who want to role-play as Japanese animation characters, participants in sports and martial arts and those who are simply interested in comfort. Shiatsu specialists even suggest the socks may have health benefits.

Sherrer-Daley buys her tabi from Leslie Padorr, who has operated Cool East Market, an online shop based in Toronto, for seven years. Padorr specializes in tabi socks and shoes, from traditional white cotton tabi that affix with metal hooks at the back of the ankle, to casual styles in striped fleece, green tie-dye or purple polka dots.

Starting a business to sell such a little-known product was risky, Padorr says, but the venture has proved successful. After adopting a child from China, she wanted to start an Asian-related business. She became interested in the Japanese footwear and realized there were no North American distributors.

Sales started out slow: In her first month, she sold three pair. But word has spread, and she now fills about 100 orders a month, with loyal customers often buying in bulk.

Padorr takes pride in introducing Americans to another culture’s fashion. “As the world is more globally oriented and we’re broadening our horizons through the Internet, someone who lives in the middle of the United States can take part in something international,” she said.

Many of her customers wear tabi socks when dressing up as their favorite animated Japanese characters. Alexis Saunders, 19, a New Brunswick, Canada, university student, meticulously designs and sews her own costumes, some of which feature tabi socks worn under Japanese geta, a traditional form of raised flip-flops. She discovered Padorr’s site, and for $50 bought 12 pairs of the socks.

Tabi are also popular among people practicing traditional Japanese martial arts and drumming. But they have fans on the baseball field as well. The new star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Daisuke Matsuzaka, reportedly wears them when he pitches to increase his circulation.

Other tabi wearers choose them for comfort. With severe rheumatoid arthritis causing intensely swollen and painful foot joints, Linda Poindexter, 67, felt comfortable only wearing flip-flops, which could lead to cold feet during North Carolina winters. A year and a half ago, her daughter found the solution: She bought her mother six dozen pairs of black, brown, white and navy blue tabi socks.

Poindexter thought they looked “hilarious,” but the comfort won her over, despite the razzing she gets from her husband. “He goes, ‘Oh, those are so sexy. I don’t know how I’m going to resist you now,’” Poindexter’s daughter, Lesa Fraser, said.

Podiatrists cannot say whether tabi socks and shoes actually have any impact on the foot.

“In my personal opinion, outside of looking different, I don’t know if it has any effect,” said Steven Levitz, professor of podiatry at New York College of Podiatric Medicine, adding with a laugh that Japanese style is “always two or three years ahead of us.” (But in this case, the Japanese have been wearing the socks for hundreds of years.)

One podiatrist, however, took the tabi style as an inspiration for his patented foot-soothing creation. David Shaffer invented the Bunion Sock in 1986 by putting a binder in the big-toe pouch that he says slows the progression of painful bunions. Over 20 years, he’s gained a loyal following of thousands of customers who say the sock, at $15.95 a pair, has alleviated their bunion pain.

“Why should a person have to spend $5,000 to have surgery when I can produce a sock to help them for less than 20 bucks?” Shaffer said, adding that even though the tabi are comfortable--he wears them himself--they probably don't have any significant impact on the foot by themselves.

But shiatsu experts disagree. Steve Rogne, director of Zen Shiatsu Chicago, says that there is a point between the big toe and second toe “that is really helpful for the function of the liver and the circulation of energy through the whole body.” Rogne, who wears tabi himself for increased agility when treating patients, says that both direct pressure and the creation of physical space around that point can have a positive effect.

Whatever the health benefits, Westerners are increasingly adopting the style of shoe as a fashion statement. Nike launched Air Rift, a sporty line of split-toe shoes, more than 10 years ago, and they have become popular in the United Kingdom. Tim Johnson, a business development manager for an Internet company in Stockton on Tees, England, bought his first pair eight years ago and now owns more than 200.

He created a Web site, J600.com, for fellow devotees that has attracted more than 1,500 members. In early March, Johnson began selling the shoes on the site, and in six weeks has sold hundreds of pairs. Johnson said people are drawn to the comfort, versatility, the variety of colors and the uniqueness of the shoes--so much so that they quickly sell out whenever there’s a new shipment.

“When you’ve got one, you want another color. When you’ve got two or three, you get hooked,” Johnson said. “The problem we’ve got with them more than anything is getting a supply. The demand is bigger than the supply.”

Less mainstream brands have also joined the trend. Belgian designer Martin Margiela sells his red denim version for $149.99 at high-end shops. And last autumn’s line from Irregular Choice, a British shoemaker with designs that range from funky to outrageous, featured several models of split-toe flats for women in patent leather or with huge bows or rows of flowers sewn on.

Sherrer-Daley, a fashion designer, welcomes this kind of stylistic innovation. “Some people say, ‘I could never buy that,’" she said. "It doesn’t define who you are. It’s just a moment of fashion.”

E-mail: emh2149@columbia.edu