Season 12 of Project Runway premiered on July 18, 2013, and ran through October 17, on Lifetime. For the first time, a Deaf designer entered the competition: Justin LeBlanc of North Carolina.
LeBlanc started out as an Architecture major at North Carolina State University, but during his final year, discovered that he had a passion for fashion design. After completing his studies in Architecture, he earned his M.A. at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and embarked on his career as a designer.
He describes his upbringing as "Total Communication," becoming proficient in signing and speech. (His speech isn't perfect.) He received a cochlear implant when he was 18—his own choice. During his stint on Project Runway, he used an interpreter.
LeBlanc is Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University, in the Art and Design Department, and Faculty Advisor for the Art2Wear project—the same competition where he discovered his passion.
He was urged to apply for Project Runway, astonished that he was invited to audition, and "totally shocked" to find himself on the show.
As viewers know well, each season of Project Runway presents a variety of challenges to the competitors (starting with 15). The challenges are often kooky. The competing designers work within numerous restrictions: e.g., a strict budget, limited contact with the outside world, no patterns or pattern books allowed, and so forth. The materials they work with are frequently non-traditional. The resulting outfits are often weird and unwearable. But the experience certainly expands the designers' vocabularies!
He managed to hold his own through the first five challenges, but got eliminated after Challenge #6. Mentor Tim Gunn, exercising the new prerogative of his single "save" of the season, overruled the judges and insisted that LeBlanc be given another chance. Gratefully, LeBlanc vowed to make it worthwhile. He survived through the finale, during which the four remaining designers presented a complete line during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City.
At their best, LeBlanc's designs, utilizing a palette of neutrals—white, ivory, gray, black—are clean, simple, and graceful. He utilized a 3-D printer to make futuristic-looking collarettes, and one of his most stunning dresses was crafted out of carpet backing and quilled with plastic laboratory pipettes. Other dresses incorporated motifs depicting soundwaves. He came in third—although there were viewers who argued that his designs were better than the winner's.
The experience was thrilling and educational. "I learned a lot about myself during the experience, which helped me to grow as an educator and a designer," he told us. "Being on the show as the first Deaf contestant allowed me to show people that we are capable of doing anything on where we set our mind to."