Erica Kim is a Toronto-based historian of architecture and urban design at the University of Toronto. Erica's work is rooted in her interest in memory, citizenship, and belonging (and a childhood fascination with Disneyland!). We had a chance to chat with Erica about her research, ethical fashion and consumerism, and how environment evokes memory. Read on to read the interview—and to see how Erica styles Seek.
1. What led you on your path to becoming a historian of modern architecture and urban design?
We lived in a postwar Southern California suburb as the only Asians and immigrants on our street. I became very aware of how the environment shapes our sense of belonging because the suburb was designed as a neighborhood unit with wide sidewalks. The library, school, park, and shops were all within walking distance, and as latchkey kids, we roamed everywhere. When I arrived at college, I had already decided I wanted to be an art historian. Yet I soon realized that I was more interested in art in public settings. I was curious about what happens when something designed for one audience is experienced by others. This led to new questions: who gets to decide what is public art? what about places that are designed to exclude certain people? why are there so many places that look historic or from a different culture, from shops or malls to theme parks and historic districts? what can we do to document and share our knowledge about these places so that other ways of building and being in the world are more possible? The more questions I asked, the more architectural and urban my focus became. And I knew that ultimately I wanted to help people become both critical of art and tolerant of differing perspectives.
2. Some of your research on global cities focuses on issues of memory and citizenship. Can you share with us how you first got interested in these topics?
My interest in memory began with my all-consuming love of Disneyland. I would go after school to do homework, hang out with friends, and have dinner. The park is designed to engage all the senses, especially hearing and smell. I realized that environmental design could invoke memory as an embodied feeling, and certain motifs and images were especially powerful. I also became aware that memory is both a deeply personal and collective experience, and returning to Disneyland has become a pilgrimage where I try to connect to past experiences. As I grow older, things have changed. And I have come to understand the sadness of no longer recognizing a place or feeling like you don’t belong. As a teenager finely attuned to irony, I also understood that the stories told by Walt Disney did not include people like me as the main character. Frontierland, Fantasyland…these were places that celebrated a mythical European past and American Manifest Destiny. And yet, there were things about these stories that still appealed to me as a child, and this led me to think about how memory can foster or deny a more generous understanding of citizenship.
3. Do you ever discover any connections between your interest in/philosophies toward fashion and your work as a historian of architecture and urban design?
It has become very clear to me how capitalism is like a large net that entangles everything. Disneyland is a place of consumption, and in my research, I wanted to understand how its design influenced the creation of places and art elsewhere. So much is now built in the service of consumerism, and this raises urgent questions about belonging and the ability to act without harming other living things and the natural world. Fashion has always been a source of pleasure and creativity for me. Yet I am increasingly aware of the harm our very human craving for new things causes. I am ambivalent about fashion and social media, especially the increasing labor of consumers and bloggers to create images of desire and share information that helps people decide what to buy. At the same time, there might be a way to learn from the multiplicity of voices and new communities made possible through social media. What if city building could be more of a non-hierarchical process that began with a sincere commitment to creating and maintaining relationships for generations?
4. What does ethical fashion mean to you?
Loving and caring for the clothes you bring into your home, and extending their life as long as possible through mending and giving things to others who feel the same way. Thinking about the entire lifecycle, how it’s made, how it’s bought and sold, whether the materials can be reused or returned to the Earth in a kind way. Asking whether the making of clothing brings dignity and opportunity to everyone involved in the process.
5. You’re also a mom of two. Have you noticed them coming into their own senses of style, or are they curious about your relationship to style/fashion?
My youngest is very bossy, and he has no problem sharing his opinions about my outfits. My eldest is more indifferent. Yet both are very clear about the relationship between clothing and comfort. They often talk about how a fabric feels or its warmth. Living in Toronto, weather is always a factor in our morning conversations about getting dressed. I usually shop online for my kids because they have very little patience for stores. So I will set up the laptop with preselected items in their sizes, and then they decide what to order. As for me, they think I’m ridiculous and spend too much time shopping. Sometimes we’re late for school because of outfit indecision, but usually we’re late because they forget to brush their teeth.
6. What’s one of your favorite pieces of clothing in your closet, whether it has a special meaning or was just a really great investment?
My favorite piece of clothing is my Horses Atelier Alchemical coat. It has such an interesting shape with a tapered bottom that feels very 20s to me. I also started buying oversized bulky knit sweaters, and this coat is the only one that easily slips over the big sleeves. I can also throw it over old sweats and transform into a more composed version of myself.
7. Aside from sustainable clothing, what are some other ways you incorporate sustainability into your life?
We are lucky to live in a walkable neighborhood with transit. I don’t own a car, so I walk to buy groceries nearly every day. At the end of the week my fridge is empty because I only buy what I need. I also grew up during a long drought and experienced rolling blackouts. Even though water and electricity are more abundant in Toronto, I’m still vigilant about long showers or turning off lights. For me sustainability is not just about consumption, it’s about an equitable redistribution of resources. I donate regularly to food banks, community fridges and farms, clothing drives, and when I help put together things for a newcomer family, I try to buy linens and cookware that will last a long time.
8. What do you do when you’re seeking inspiration?
I run in the mornings when the city is still quiet. I use these runs as an opportunity to explore. I am always turning down laneways or peeking into shop windows. I pay attention to colors and textures and the way light changes with the seasons. These runs inspire my research as well as my outfit planning.
9. What’s the most recent book you’ve read and felt moved by?
I am currently reading Grand Hotel Abyss: The lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. It’s a funny and accessible intellectual history that reminds me of how hard it is to move between theory and action and back again. The ability to critically analyze and reflect seems especially difficult these days.
10. What is the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
A digital humanities archivist once described her career as a series of moments when she said yes to a request that led to new experiences and opportunities. Sometimes we say no because of insecurity or because we can’t see how it benefits us. I believe in reciprocity, and saying yes can help build lasting relationships.
11. What are you seeking more of this year?
I am seeking attunement. So often I try to fix problems or offer advice without truly listening to the other person.
Interesting interview! Can you share the maker of your checkerboard pants? Love them – thanks!