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‘Project Runway’ picks 2 designers with Chicago ties

Kahindo Mateene 'Project Runway'

Kahindo Mateene on "Project Runway"

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Updated: August 19, 2013 3:38PM

When Kahindo Mateene got laid off from her marketing job at a tool company in Skokie, she figured she might as well go back to school and pursue her true passion: fashion.

A little more than a decade later, the Edgewater woman is hitting the runway — “Project Runway” — as one of 16 contestants vying for a prize package worth more than $500,000.

The sartorial series that pits up-and-coming designers against one another in weekly challenges launches into season 12 Thursday on Lifetime.

Supermodel and “America’s Got Talent” star Heidi Klum returns as host and judge, along with Nina Garcia and Zac Posen. They’re joined by a laundry list of guest judges, including Michael Kors, Kelly Osbourne, Sigourney Weaver, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Kaley Cuoco. Mentor Tim Gunn will have more of a presence, watching the runway shows with the judges and having the power to rescue a designer from elimination.

Another alteration this season is to bolster viewers’ second-screen experience. Fans can take to their mobile phones, tablets or computers to voice opinions on who should get the boot, among other things. Viewers can weigh in at and the results will be shown on TV as the episode airs.

One of this season’s contenders will be a familiar face. Fans on Lifetime’s website picked a past player to come back after a designer punched a cameraman and left the show, Klum told TV Guide. The returning contestant will be unveiled in the premiere.

Mateene, 34, isn’t the only “Project Runway” hopeful with Chicago ties. Raleigh, N.C., resident Justin LeBlanc, 27, graduated last year from the Master of Design in Fashion, Body and Garment program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

LeBlanc is deaf, a condition that has left him with “a heightened visual sense,” he said in an interview conducted over email.

LeBlanc said he wasn’t worried about being at a disadvantage during the competition; he could request a sign language interpreter if needed.

“My deafness might help me at times because I can turn my hearing device off in order to avoid the drama in the workroom and focus on my designs,” he said.

“Project Runway” wrapped filming Friday. Mateene spent five weeks in New York doing the show — five weeks where she had to put her clothing label, Modahnik, on hold.

“That was the hardest part,” said the designer, whose creations are sold at Vile & Valiant in West Town and Florodora in the Monadnock Building. She plans to launch an online store at Modahnik/ in the coming weeks. “I am my business, so while I was away, Modahnik was kind of shut down. I’m just kind of picking everything back up right now.”

The daughter of a diplomat from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mateene bounced around various countries — Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria and Kenya, where she went to boarding school — before moving to the States at age 17.

“Being from Africa, I’m always pulling inspiration from my culture, specifically Congolese culture, which is very loud and bright and eclectic,” said the Illinois Institute of Art graduate. She’s an alum of the Chicago Fashion Incubator, a joint effort by the city and Macy’s to help foster new talent.

Mateene’s favorite TV show, “Game of Thrones,” also played a role in her current spring/summer collection. HBO’s epic fantasy prompted her to incorporate more draping into her otherwise highly tailored designs. Some items are named after the show’s characters, such as the Khaleesi dress.

Another inspiration for Mateene — this one closer to home — is Chicago native Michelle Obama. The Modahnik FLOTUS dress is a bubble-hem frock with cold shoulder sleeves to flaunt toned arms.

The designer has made a point of sending the First Lady a piece from each of her collections — a favor that’s been returned with thank-you notes from the White House.

Mateene said she used to carry one of those notes with her in her purse, “but now it’s framed in my studio.”

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