Raleigh's Justin LeBlanc enters the home stretch on 'Project Runway'

From left, Tim Gunn and Justin LeBlanc talk in a segment of Lifetime’s “Project Runway” reality competition show.
From left, Tim Gunn and Justin LeBlanc talk in a segment of Lifetime’s “Project Runway” reality competition show.

Never underestimate the wisdom of Tim Gunn.

After a promising start, Raleigh’s favorite “Project Runway” contestant, Justin LeBlanc, suddenly found himself in a terrible position two weeks ago. A design misstep landed him in the bottom two at the end of the reality competition episode, and the N.C. State grad and professor stood tearful before the judges, as host Heidi Klum uttered the show’s two most dreaded words: “You’re out.”

But that was not the end of LeBlanc’s “Project Runway” story.

This season, dapper mentor Gunn was given the opportunity to save one eliminated contestant if he felt the judges made a mistake. To the delight of LeBlanc’s fans, Gunn – also in tears – decided to save Justin. (Gunn also noted at the time that LeBlanc is “one of the sweetest people to ever be on ‘Project Runway.’”)

Anyone familiar with LeBlanc’s work in the N.C. State Art2Wear show knows Gunn made the right choice.

Trained in architecture at State, LeBlanc, who grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Broughton High School, likes to utilize architectural lines and uncommon techniques to create fresh takes on classic looks.

“I would describe my design aesthetic as minimalistic, highly tactile, with a zeal for finding new techniques,” says LeBlanc in an email interview. “My greatest influences are some of my favorite artists and designers, including Lucy McRae, Bart Hess and Alexander McQueen. My training in architecture also heavily influences my design aesthetic, as does my deafness, as I strive to provide a full visual experience in my designs.”

LeBlanc was born with severe sensorineural hearing loss. He received a cochlear implant at age 18 that enables him to hear well enough to use the phone, though he still signs. His hearing loss also has served as an unexpected advantage in the workroom, allowing him to tune out the seemingly constant bickering and breakdowns of fellow designers.

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

Taking a risk pays off

Staying focused in the workroom comes naturally to LeBlanc after years spent in the studio during his time as an architecture student at State.

“My architectural background gave me the work ethic that I have today,” he says. “Very high expectations are placed upon architecture students, and the program at N.C. State is no exception. You are pushed to do your absolute best and being successful demands long hours in the studio and a high commitment to the work.”

For much of the “Project Runway” season, LeBlanc played it pretty safe, designing pieces that kept him in the middle of the pack during judging.

But after a “glamping” trip to the country, he decided to take a risk – creating a dress embellished with a lacy water-inspired trim created with delicate strands of dried glue. Though the final result was off the mark, the unconventional glue technique displayed LeBlanc’s undeniable talent and left an impression on Gunn that likely helped save him.

“I was trained to think critically and understand the three-dimensionality of design,” he says. “This allows me to be much more attentive when it comes to fashion design. And my varied training in architecture, fashion and art allows me to exploit and fuse different approaches, resulting in artistic expression that cannot be conveyed by one discipline alone.”

Justin’s mother, Kathleen Edwards of Raleigh, also has faith in Justin’s fashion vision and his ability to go far in the competition.

“I think that, in addition to showing his ability to function under pressure, Justin will flourish as the judges begin to focus more closely on the creativity and execution of the garments,” Edwards said. “He has a unique vision and an ability to carry out that vision with exquisite detail. I have faith in Justin.”

Now in the top 10

Now officially in the top 10, LeBlanc is in “Project Runway’s” home stretch. In real time, the final three (or sometimes four) contestants get a runway show at New York’s Fashion Week. That show takes place Friday at Lincoln Center and the finale episode, in which the season’s winner is chosen, is taped right after. The winner is revealed on the “Project Runway” finale, which airs on Lifetime on Oct. 17.

However far LeBlanc advances on the show, he credits all those cheering him on back home for helping him get through the tough moments of the competition.

“I want to thank everyone for their support and enthusiasm,” he says. “Knowing that I have North Carolina and the Wolfpack behind me makes my journey much easier. I sincerely am humbled by this opportunity to represent North Carolina, and hope I will not disappoint.”