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'Project Runway' Designer Justin LeBlanc On Fashion, Deafness, and the Power of Being Yourself

Justin LeBlanc is not your average Project Runway contestant: he's the first deaf designer to star in the reality competition. Before you rack your brain to consider the disadvantages of his position, you should know that LeBlanc does not view his deafness as a burden. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity. 

As a designer, LeBlanc has taken that opportunity and run with it. Now in its 12th season, Project Runway has introduced millions of viewers to LeBlanc’s streamlined, architectural designs. The Raleigh, N.C., native kicked off the season with a stunning hot pink cocktail dress made from parachute material, and he's only sharpened his aesthetic over the course of the season. In the most recent episode's super-fan competition, he was selected as one of the top three contestants. 

Photo courtesy A&E.

LeBlanc’s self-awareness and ability to communicate his story through designs have been even more consistent than his success on the show. LeBlanc has allowed his disability to shape his career in fashion, but never to define it. His story is one that not only includes his experiences as a deaf person, but also his training in architecture and his professorship in design at North Carolina State University. 

LeBlanc's strong aesthetic and identity were best exemplified in the "Let’s Go Glamping" challenge. LeBlanc used a glue gun to create an intricate lace design inspired by the whitecaps of a roaring river — an innovative solution, for sure. When the judges voted him out, LeBlanc became the first designer to be saved by Project Runway host and mentor Tim Gunn, who lauded LeBlanc's creative risk-taking. 

That creative risk-taking may see LeBlanc through to the end. In this one-on-one interview, LeBlanc reveals the impact of being deaf in fashion, tells us which judge is the scariest, and shares the best piece of advice he has for young people.

Amirah Mercer: Early on in the show, when a fellow contestant asked how best to communicate with you, you advised them to, "just be yourself." Does that ethos also apply to your career as a fashion designer?

Justin LeBlanc: We live in a very diverse society, and each person has their own way of approaching their daily life, rather than conforming to a "norm." I want people to be who they want to be and embrace it. I embrace myself as a deaf designer. It is who I am. I am not going to try and pretend to be something else. I expect the same from others, because I don’t want them to feel the need to change who they are in order to communicate with me. 

I apply that to my career as a fashion designer because I am constantly meeting new creative people and I am fascinated with their story and their approach to design.  Everyone is unique in some way, and that is a source of constant inspiration. 

Photo courtesy A&E.

AM: First impressions are key on Project Runway. What was the most important thing you wanted to communicate about yourself, either personally or professionally, through your designs?

JL: The biggest thing that I want to communicate through the show is that I don’t perceive my deafness as a burden, but as an opportunity to show people that there are ways to make things work. It’s just a matter of thinking outside of the box and addressing unique situations differently. With regard to my designs, I wanted to convey my love of simplicity, my architectural sense for structure, and my insistence on quality.  

AM: How does being deaf impact your design aesthetic, if at all?

JL: Being deaf caused me to become a very textural designer. Deafness challenged and inspired me to translate my perceptions of sound into tangible objects — in this case, fashion. 

AM: Has your hearing loss ever stopped you from accomplishing a goal, especially as a designer? 

JL: There have been many obstacles throughout my life, stemming from others' perceptions of hearing loss. These obstacles often complicate the attainment of goals, but they have never prevented me from succeeding. I have never allowed my hearing loss to prevent me from accomplishing what I want to do in my life. What’s important is to figure out what strategies and resources will be needed to attain a goal. I have a network of very supportive family members and friends who constantly remind me not to let my deafness get in the way of my goals. 

Photo courtesy A&E.

AM: Congrats on being the first contestant ever saved by Tim Gunn. That's quite an honor! Did you feel pressure to prove that you deserved to be saved?

JL: Of course I feel extra pressure! I respect Tim very much, and he had only one save. I was in complete shock when he used it on me, and I am forever grateful that he decided to keep me on the show. The save will only make me work harder to show him that he made the right decision. 

AM: What has been your most rewarding or favorite designer challenge on Project Runway, thus far?

JL: The most rewarding challenge was the challenge where Tim Gunn saved me. Prior [to] that drama, my fellow designers and I went glamping, and it was one of the most amazing experiences on the show, because it was the first time that I really got the opportunity to get to know the other designers. It was a challenge for me to socialize with them in the workroom, because I didn’t have the pleasure of listening and designing at the same time. Naturally, I chose to design rather than socialize. I am forever thankful for that opportunity to become friends with the other designers. I also very much enjoyed the challenge on that episode, although the judges were less than flattering when describing my work.

AM: The Project Runway fans out there would love a little inside scoop. Can you share a funny or inspiring moment that wasn’t shown on camera?

JL: Back to the episode when Tim Gunn saved me: after I was eliminated and returned to the designer lounge, Ken and Jeremy, whom I'd grown the closest to, immediately came up to me to comfort me before everyone else followed. I was still in shock at that moment, but Ken spoke up and said some inspiring words, encouraging me to stay strong and move forward from the experience. His words of encouragement really touched me. I was disappointed that the encounter was not shown, because it revealed the true Ken. He’s a very sweet and loyal person, and I respect him very much.

AM: Every show needs a villain. Who's the scariest judge on the panel?

JL: Hands down, I have to give that to the lady who uttered the line of the season — which was "foaming vagina" — Nina Garcia. However, she is a very intelligent woman, and I respect her point of view. She speaks her mind, and I admire that very much.

AM: Name three people, dead or living, whom you’d love to design dinner wear for and host for dinner.

JL: I would love to host and design dinner wear for Daphne Guinness, who’s style I absolutely love; Tilda Swinton, due to her unique way of presenting herself and the fact that she is a very talented person; and lastly, Michelle Obama, [because] her passion and her beliefs are very inspiring. 

AM: You are such an inspiration to young people, students and budding designers alike. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to young deaf people who are pursuing their dream jobs?

JL: I live very closely by this John T. Caldwell quote: “You just don’t know how magnificent you might be. Think big. Think big about your possibilities in this world.” I would also advise them to remove "I can’t" from their vocabulary, and see where that will lead them.

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