A Fashion Show–With a Larger Goal
Harrisonburg’s Green Hummingbird Fair Trade Clothing Store
There I was sitting in the first row beside a fashion model’s runway. We’ve all seen the runways on TV or magazines—sparkly lights, photographer flashes going off, models strutting with exaggerated sways down the “catwalk.” What was I doing there?
It wasn’t a New York or Paris runway of course but a humble Harrisonburg set up in the Madison Ballroom over at James Madison University, organized by JMU communication students. For a “senior project” they were trying out their skills in a practical, real job type environment, putting on a fashion show: promotion, media contacts, programs, music, models, door prizes, speeches or narration, refreshments.
But the real reason I came was in support of a friend from our church, Eleanor Held, whose own store’s fashions at Green Hummingbird were featured in the fashion show.
This isn’t just any clothing store—but a “fair trade” boutique she opened late last summer, stemming from her faith and beliefs in trying to trying to help others.
Eleanor’s Green Hummingbird is set on the south edge of a revitalizing business area of Harrisonburg, a stone’s throw from Harrisonburg’s bustling Farmer’s Market. It’s the first store students come to on a longish walk downtown from campus. Students headed to the ever-popular Klines Dairy Bar see the store, as well as those angling toward the longtime novelty store, Glen’s Fair Price, or hankering for the renowned hotdog dive, Jess’ Lunch.
Eleanor is hoping students with disposable income (a sizeable chunk of the JMU crowd) will be the bread and butter for her store—and the rice, beans, and medical care for thousands of families around the world. She envisions the clothing she sells offering children the opportunity to continue their education instead of toiling in dangerous, unhealthy and exploitative conditions. (Think about the “play” kids miss when tied to a carpet loom all day.) The beautifully embroidered or hand sewn purses, scarves, dresses, tops, jackets, sweaters and more (including handmade jewelry) is only part of the “feel good hum” you leave with when you buy something from “The Humm” as Eleanor abbreviates her store’s name.
Fair trade, of course, works to create opportunities for artisans and farmers all over the world but especially those in countries where long time poverty limits access to “long term, well-paying jobs,” according to the Fair Trade Federation’s operating statements. They have a long and admirable list of guidelines and as Eleanor addressed the 40 some students (mostly female) at the Thursday night show, she spoke of having connections through suppliers who work directly with the artisans whose products she carries. One of the things that fair trade fights is sweat shop conditions, and as Eleanor succinctly put the concept, “Think of fair trade as the opposite of sweatshops.”
As the models (including one guy) strode the runway (they walked so fast my camera wasn’t set well to capture it!) in eye-pleasing summer fashions including colorful gaucho or “harem” type pants made out of recycled Indian saris, thoughts of sweatshops and ethical fair trade might seem far out of the minds of the college kids mostly thinking about acquiring cute clothes for the next party.
But I’m guessing the student attendees and those who put on the show couldn’t help but be impressed by Eleanor’s story of how just nine years ago as she herself was graduating from college, running or owning a small store was furthest from her mind. “Not for me,” she put it.
Eleanor didn’t go into these details but I know a little of her history as she pondered what she would do with her ideals, interests and passions. She spent a year working as an intern for a church and eventually got a master’s in religion and society among other things. For this audience Eleanor zeroed in on the time she spent at Stony Point Conference Center near New York City, where she was able to help manage a fair trade store gift shop for conferees and the local community. The idea of running a similar shop began to grow in her mind, but focused on clothing, to give customers the chance to see, touch, and try on the actual clothing. Our town has its share of fair trade stores but none focused on clothing.
At an intermission between the show’s “First Walk” and “Second Walk,” Eleanor shared the story of why she named her store “Green Hummingbird,” certainly an offbeat name fitting the somewhat unusual clothing.
The name comes from a folk story from Africa as told by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi. In the middle of the forest, one day the forest caught fire. As all the animals stood by, horrified that their homes were slowly burning to the ground, a little hummingbird started flying to a nearby stream. She scooped drops of water into her beak, and flew back and forth from the stream to the fire, squirting out drops in an effort to put out the flames. The other animals chided her. “What are you doing?” they asked. “What good can you possibly do? You are just a tiny hummingbird. What can one bird do?”
The green hummingbird simply responded, “I am doing the best that I can.”
We can all do the best we can as the little hummingbird did by supporting and patronizing fair trade stores and products whenever possible, especially in buying gifts: a gift that gives at least three ways: to the artisan and the family, to the local store owner including young and unlikely entrepreneurs like Eleanor, and the loved one with whom we share a gift.
While some fair trade stores tend to be expensive in order to make sure the workers get a fair price, Eleanor keeps her prices—and her cut—on the lower side. She’s not in this to get rich.
A current slogan promoting JMU is “Be the Change.” Fit’s Eleanor’s store quite well, I’d say. JMU’s student newspaper, The Breeze, also featured the fashion show, here.
What’s a Fair Trade store near you? What are your favorite things there? The tea and mug set I often feature in my recipe photography is a tea set from our local Artisans’ Hope store, given to me for serving as chair of Anabaptist Communicators for a two-year term. I love the tea set and think often of the hands in Vietnam who formed and painted it! Harrisonburg is also blessed with a Ten Thousand Villages fair trade store just up the street from Eleanor’s Green Hummingbird.
Memo to me: If you ever cover a fashion show again, set your simple camera to sports action!
For more background on Eleanor and why she got interested in Fair Trade, visit my weekly newspaper column on this topic, Another Way.