Cultural Tradition Meets Creativity: A Korean American Woman’s Artistic Pursuit

InSun Thantron

Owner, Designer, Artisan of Elenique Designs/ Mother of Two/ Pharmacist

(Cypress, CA)

A short yet eye-opening video showing Elenique Designs’ complete process from design to production of party supplies. I have so much more respect and appreciation for what InSun does!!

InSun Thantron and I went to the same high school.  She was a grade above me and, while I didn’t know her well, her remarkable academic achievement was widely recognized as well as her strong work ethic.  We even went to the same college but our paths didn’t cross at all being a year apart and studying very different subjects.  I heard from mutual friends that she became a pharmacist.   In 2011, we got reacquainted as client and photographer and, more importantly, as new, first time moms.  She hired me to photograph her first daughter’s Korean traditional first birthday party*.  Having gone through preparing such event for my first daughter only a couple of months prior, there was a natural bond and sense of comradery we felt for one another.  It was evident how much love she put into the event.  Many details and decorations were hand-made.

*In Korean culture, there are two birthdays that are regarded as the most significant:  First and sixtieth.  Often a large gathering happens for both milestones.  For the former, there is an important ritual called 돌잡이 (doljabi) where the birthday baby is placed in front of different items to choose from and whatever he/she grabs first symbolizes his/her future.

It was such a great joy to see InSun at a shopping center in LA during my recent visit there.  We had dinner together and had our girls (four in total) draw and play together while we conducted the interview and photo shoot.

One of the photos I took of InSun’s adorable daughter at her first birthday party in 2011.

Hazel:  I remember how great of a job you did decorating your daughter’s first birthday party.  If I recollect correctly, that’s how you got started with your Etsy shop, Elenique Designs, making event supplies specializing in Korean first birthday celebration.  Is this true?

InSun:  Yes!  It all started after I handmade most of the decorations for my daughter’s first birthday celebration.  I really enjoyed it.  I was suffering from postpartum, although it wasn’t clear to me at that time.  Arts and crafts have always been my happy place.  Creating art allowed me to express myself as a person.  During the party, everyone was congratulating us and celebrating her successful first year.  Secretly, I was also celebrating a different success.

Hazel:  I’m sorry to hear about your postpartum depression.  But, I’m glad that you were able to find something productive and fulfilling to channel your energy during your difficult time. 

InSun:  Me, too.  I’m glad I was able to find my own way to deal with my postpartum.  Creating all those handmade decorations for my daughter’s party made me feel accomplished and I felt so proud of myself.  As you know, mental health issue is so taboo in the Asian American community so I really didn’t feel comfortable speaking about it at that time. My creative work became my lifeline.  It not only provided me with a creative outlet but also connected me to other parents in similar situations; it gave me a sense of fulfillment and joy to be their lifeline. 

Hazel:  Were you always this good with arts and crafts? 

InSun:  I have always loved art.  I loved creating ever since I was little.  I used to love watching my dad making and building with his hands.  He was so creative and talented.  He would let me assist him on his projects.  Those were wonderful bonding times.  I remember this one time I had a school project on my Korean heritage and he went all out and recreated a model of a Korean traditional hut.  It was so realistic.  He passed away 19 years ago, but I still carry his creative influence with me even to this day.   

Hazel:  Sorry about your dad.  I’m sure he would have been so proud of your work. 

돌고임 (Decorative stands to be place on the top of the first birthday head table. Left to Right: Birthday child’s name in Korean, his/her Eastern zodiac sign, “Happy First Birthday” in Korean.

InSun:  Thank you.  So, after my daughter’s party I got to thinking there must be other moms who may feel the same way I did.  They may not have the resources to create or the time to make their own party decorations.  I opened my Etsy Shop with the idea to provide custom Korean first birthday supplies so they can feel accomplished and proud that they were able to do something wonderful and custom for their child.  Parents can feel they had a direct hand in designing custom party items for their baby’s important celebration.

Hazel:  I know you were a pharmacist before becoming a designer/artisan.  What is your plan with the pharmacist career?

InSun:  I’m taking a little break from being a pharmacist.  Having kids changes everything.  I wanted flexibility in my schedule.  I wanted to provide financially but also be there for them physically and emotionally.  Elenique Designs allows me to balance being a mom and a working professional.  I work mostly when my girls are at school.

Hazel:  That’s great!  I work also for 15 hours or so a week doing accounting while the girls are at school.  But I still find it difficult to balance things at times.

InSun:  I think it’s a constant struggle for all working moms.  But now that the girls are a bit older, being 9 and 6, they help with the chores such as folding their own laundry, putting away dishes, etc.

Hazel:  Yes, true.  But more and more chores are being replaced with rides for their activities that are becoming more and more demanding.  Anyway, going back to your business.  Tell me about specific products you sell.

My favorite name plaque theme! Anyone else a “Where the Wild Things Are” fan?

InSun:  I mainly sell custom design name plaques, custom felt doljabi items, dohl towers and designer cake toppers.  My most popular items are the doljabi items.

Hazel:  Tell me about the process of how those are made.

InSun:  Typically, the customers tell me which items they want (usually 4 to 11 items) and what colors they want.  There is a list on my Etsy shop of common doljabi items and anything else is considered custom design that they can special order.  Then I provide them with a sketch so they can see those items in the colors they chose. 

Hazel:  What is the trend of the items that are being requested today?

InSun:  Common items I get the most requests are stethoscope (medical career), pencil (scholar), money (wealth), and soccer ball/golf club (athlete).  But now I am seeing a growing request for non-typical items such as gears (engineering), beakers (scientist) and Chanel bags (fashion). 

Hazel:  I guess these requests reflect what people perceive to be a success and good life currently.  That’s so interesting.  How long does it typical take for doljabi item orders to be fulfilled?

InSun:  The entire process takes about 4 to 5 days for common items that do not require a new design.  I usually take an hour, hour and a half per item after the designing process is finished.  Many times, the design process takes the most time since the customer and I may go back and forth on the sketch before I start the sewing process.  I provide digital sketches made with Paper, a touch screen application where I can draw with my Stylus pen.  Once the sketch is approved, I start production. 

Hazel:  How much does a doljabi set sell for?

InSun:  It varies but an average price is around $125 for a six-item set.

Hazel:  That’s really reasonable considering the amount of time, work and effort that goes into making these items.  How many doljabi sets do you usually sell in a year?

Different styles of 돌잡이 doljabi items

InSun:  I started offering the doljabi items on my shop about 4 years ago and I’ve sold nearly 200 sets.  The funny thing is I didn’t know how to use a sewing machine before then.  I made a New Year resolution to learn something new and that is how I picked up sewing.

Hazel:  Incredible!  I think the majority of people will never be as good as you even if they’d practice all their lives.  From what I understand, your business is global and you ship to anywhere in the world.  How much of your business is with non-U.S. customers?  Where are these foreign customers located?

InSun:  20-30% of my customers are actually from outside of U.S.  I think it’s because they don’t have the resources as readily accessible as we have here.  Many of my international customers come from Australia, China, Canada, and England.  It’s interesting to note that the Chinese also have a similar first birthday custom like our doljabi called zhuazhou, so I get many Chinese customers who use my doljabi items for their first birthday traditions. 

Hazel:  It might be my Korean pride talking but I see that Korean culture is being recognized and appreciated more globally nowadays.  I notice how so many love Korean food, fashion, beauty products, and entertainment.  And you are certainly part of this trend setting pattern.  It’s so cool to see.  Any vision for your business for future years?

InSun:  I want to brand some of my items such as designer cake toppers and doljabi items.  I’ve already created a style that is recognizable but I want to expand on that.  I am also currently working on some new projects, which I hope to launch soon. 

Custom made cake topper hand made with paper!

Hazel:  What has been the proudest moment of being the owner of Elenique Designs?

InSun:  My passion is to help people.  The first year of parenthood is a vulnerable time and by providing these handmade custom birthday supplies, I help bring a sense of accomplishment and pride.  It’s a great compliment when I get repeat customers.  I enjoy watching their families grow and I am always humbled and honored to contribute a small portion to their important celebrations.  I recently had a family who returned to my shop for the fourth time.   I created custom dohl towers for all three of their boys and recently custom doljabi items for their daughter.  Then, there was this grandmother who hired me to make name plaques for her grandson’s baby shower, gender reveal, name reveal, first birthday and second birthday celebrations!  I love repeat customers. 

InSun’s artwork is simply amazing!  I appreciate her meticulous attention to detail and aesthetic sensibility.  The color combinations and choices in her work are so tasteful and beautiful!  Every trim and seam are created with genuine love and care.  I wish I had a baby to buy her customized goods for!  InSun, I wish you continued success.  I also thank you for spreading Korean culture and traditional customs globally.

The beauty behind the equally beautiful artwork: InSun Thantron, a role model woman entrepreneur

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