According to critics, the long-running reality TV show “Project Runway” shook off whatever doldrums it might have experienced in its nearly decade-long run this year and delivered one of its best seasons since the show made the leap from Bravo TV to the Lifetime Network in 2006. While designer Dom Streator won first place, fellow finalist Justin LeBlanc — the program’s first-ever deaf contestant — was a favorite of many fans.
LeBlanc was born with profound deafness, unable to hear any sound at all. At the age of 18, he was outfitted with a cochlear implant which enabled him to hear for first time. In an interview with Raw Story, the designer discussed his relationship with technology and science and how that relationship has influenced his work.
“My father is a scientist,” LeBlanc said via G-chat, “so it is something that I have always been exposed to growing up. I’ve always had fascination with science and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to showcase that in my collection.”
Science and technology played an integral part in the collection LeBlanc showed at New York Fashion Week 2013. The story of his collection, he explained to the judges, was his journey from being unable to hear to experiencing the barrage of sound when his implant was first activated. Then, he said, he tried to portray his personal coming to terms with sound and the technology that allows him to experience it.
“I was born deaf,” he said. “I liked the silence. It was pure and just clean.”
For Fashion Week, LeBlanc created dramatic necklaces, a belt and shoulder-pieces using a 3-D printer. One dress featured a textile bearing a print of sound waves on a visual display. His final, show-stopping piece was a gown featuring thousands of tiny plastic test tubes that made a sound like rain falling when the model walked.
At first, LeBlanc said, the sounds he heard through the implant were harsh, jarring and chaotic, but one sound that he loved was the sound of rain, which was what inspired the test tube dress.
When asked if there are still sounds he dislikes, LeBlanc told Raw Story, “I’ve come to a point where I don’t ‘dislike’ sound, I’ve just become accustomed to it. I would have to say that it was the ‘white noise’ that I was not used to and I disliked it for a very long time. I’ve grown used to it now and I don’t even think about it anymore.”
One sound he does love, he said, is the sound of “frogs croaking, haha.”
A cochlear implant bypasses a deaf person’s external hearing apparatus, which is composed of the eardrum and a chain of tiny bones called the hammer, anvil and stirrup. Those bones vibrate along with the eardrum, transmitting those vibrations to the cochlea, a fluid filled membrane with loops and whorls where the sound is translated into nerve impulses. Those impulses travel up the auditory nerve to the brain, where they are processed and interpreted. In profoundly deaf individuals, some part of that apparatus is missing or damaged.
Cochlear implants like the Cochlear brand Nucleus 6 — the type that LeBlanc received — work by directly stimulating the auditory nerve and sending information to the brain. Traditional hearing aids work as magnifiers of acoustic sound waves, but implants like the Nucleus 6 translate sound waves into electrical signals, enabling patients to experience sound directly.
Currently, LeBlanc is back at this teaching job as a professor of fiber design and fashion at North Carolina State University. He is working on a Fall and Winter 2014 collection and is the “co-faculty advisor for NCSU Art2Wear show, which is a runway show for my students in April 2014.”
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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