Fashion Studies Associate Professor Justin Dougan-LeBlanc Pushes Boundaries
Associate Professor Justin Dougan-LeBlanc thinks big, and he encourages his Fashion Studies students at Columbia College Chicago to do the same. Because fashion is more than what you see on the runway. “When we say the word fashion, it's a very broad term,” Dougan-LeBlanc says. “There are so many things that they can do in fashion. They could be a stylist, they could be a window designer, they could be a tailor or stitcher, they could be a fashion designer, they could be anything they want.”
When it comes to looking further and digging deeper, Dougan-LeBlanc speaks from experience. A profoundly Deaf person with an undergraduate degree in architecture, Dougan-LeBlanc consistently challenges himself as he tries new things as a fashion designer and, more recently, installation artist.
His “why not?” attitude shined when, as a student studying architecture, he wondered about different applications for laser cutting, which he used in creating architectural 3D models. “At the time, I was thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder if there's any other function that we can do with laser cutting? Does it have to be only architecture?’” he recalls. “And I started exploring how to apply the technology onto the body.”
He did that by creating a series of wearable art garments and eventually entered a fashion show competition. To his surprise, he won. An even bigger surprise: his newfound interest in fashion.
After completing his degree in architecture, he came to Chicago and pursued a graduate degree in Fashion from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I think being in architecture taught me how to have the work ethic and be able to follow through a mission, organize. And I think in fashion, it taught me how to let that go, just be free, be creative,” he says.
He went on to teach at North Carolina State University. But it was a one-year contract, and he felt unsure of his next steps. His mother-in-law gave him an application to be a contestant on the competition show Project Runway. “I was like, ‘I have nothing to lose at this point. I can try it out, see what happens.’"
And things did happen. Big things. Project Runway invited him to participate in Season 12, and he made it to the final four, showcasing his design focus on storytelling, form and lines, and his use of 3D modeling. “I was one of the finalists, I knew I had to do something different. I had to do something that represents who I was as a designer at that time, and I had to tap into my architecture background and my upbringing as a Deaf person.”
Ten years have passed since Project Runway, and Dougan-LeBlanc recently revisited his Project Runway collection for an exhibit at the Rochester Institute for Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf’s Joseph F. and Helen C. Dyer Arts Center that runs to April 21 (“Signwaves: Reimagined”). “I'm seeing all the garments I did 10 years ago; they're still relevant … I was on the right mindset back then … and I am happy about that.”
Drawn to its faculty and students, Dougan-LeBlanc came to Columbia five years ago to teach.
Columbia’s Fashion Studies faculty not only teach, but they also work in their fields, which makes the Columbia student experience unique, Dougan-LeBlanc says. “The school provides us the space to continue our practice but also teach the students. And this is the opportunity for us to relay any information that is current, like what is relevant right now … I'm not teaching them what I learned 10 years ago. I'm teaching them what I'm learning right now, what the industry needs in order for them to be successful.”
In addition to being a fashion designer, LeBlanc has also ventured into the world of installation art, with recent exhibits in Chicago and Berlin (see sidebar). Like his fashion designs, his installation pieces explore his identity as a Deaf person. “I’ve always found myself constantly being in limbo with society. What is the expectation to be a Deaf person? Why is the expectation to be a hearing person?”
When not working on installations or on the Columbia campus, he teaches a course promoting accessibility in design and a class in the art of drag. And this spring, he will prepare students for the upcoming fashion show at Manifest, Columbia’s annual student-driven festival that showcases graduating student work. But that’s not all. Dougan-LeBlanc also now designs costumes for theater. He dove into the world of costume design last year with Music Theatre Works’ production of La Cage Aux Folles, and he returned to it again, designing costumes for Music Theatre Works’ recent production of White Christmas.
While Dougan-LeBlanc continues to think big and expand his creative vision in new ways, storytelling remains the root of it all. “As a designer, as an artist, as anything in my life, as a costume designer, it's always important to have a story to tell, because that's what people crave,” he says. “They want to hear other people's story, other people's journey, and what's the meaning behind this piece.”
Justin Dougan-LeBlanc's work can be seen locally and internationally. Check out his upcoming events:
March 4 and 5, 2023
Circle Contemporary North Shore
Until March 13, 2023
Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institue for the Deaf
Rochester, New York
Through April 21, 2023
Until April 30, 2023