Raleigh's Justin LeBlanc vies for the top spot on 'Project Runway'

Justin LeBlanc, left, and Tim Gunn watch from backstage in the final challenge of “Project Runway.” airing Thursday on Lifetime.
Justin LeBlanc, left, and Tim Gunn watch from backstage in the final challenge of “Project Runway.” airing Thursday on Lifetime.

The road to New York Fashion Week has been filled with twists and turns for “Project Runway” contestant and Raleigh native Justin LeBlanc.

Now one of the four finalists competing for the fashion design competition’s top prize on Thursday’s season finale, LeBlanc defied the odds and made history, becoming not only the first deaf contestant to compete on the show, but the first contestant to be saved from elimination by mentor Tim Gunn.

“I will be forever thankful for (Gunn) ‘saving’ me,” LeBlanc said in an email interview. “He hopefully saw my potential and drive, and understood that I needed more time to show my true ability. I knew that I had much more to contribute and I am grateful that Tim felt the same way and gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my talent.”

LeBlanc blew away the competition in a final challenge to create a collection for Fashion Week, easily earning the third finalist slot with three stunning garments inspired by the moment he was first able to hear via a cochlear implant.

“This collection allowed me to visualize and tell my story of being a deaf man, hearing for the first time, and adjusting to a life that includes sound,” he explained. “For me, this is a very emotional and personal story. I hope that I can convey that emotion to others through my collection.”

Using local resources

LeBlanc and his fellow contestants were given just six weeks and $9,000 to return home and create a 10-piece collection for Fashion Week.

“Although six weeks may sound like a long time to many, creating a collection like this in such a short period of time is close to impossible because so much goes into creating a collection,” said LeBlanc. “Upon returning to Raleigh from New York, I rested little, returning home only a few hours each day to sleep and eat.”

And without the ready-made workspace at Parsons and weekly trips to Mood for fabrics – perks he’d become accustomed to while on “Project Runway” – LeBlanc had to hustle to find what he needed.

“I was determined to use as many fabric and material sources located within North Carolina as possible, ranging from Raleigh all the way to Asheville,” he said. “And I was going to find a way to create 3-D designs. There was so much to get done.”

The N.C. State grad and professor didn’t have to travel far to create the rib-like structural pieces used as accents on his dresses, utilizing a 3-D printer on State’s campus to craft the futuristic accessories.

Back in New York to finish the competition, the hectic pace only quickened. On the day of the “Project Runway” fashion show, LeBlanc and his fellow designers began their day at 2 a.m., riding through the dark streets of New York to the Fashion Week tents at the Lincoln Center.

“Once there, we began fitting the garments on the models for the last time, discussing the order of the collections, making final adjustments,” he said. “I have experienced this many times on a lesser scale, but presenting a collection at New York Fashion Week was nothing I was prepared for.”

Make it work

Things were going well until, in dramatic reality show fashion, crisis struck.

“Tim Gunn informed me early on that one of my models broke her ankle,” said LeBlanc. “I was so shocked and concerned for her. I was presented with a new model hours before the runway show, and more garment adjustments needed to be made to make it work.”

Inside the massive theatre – the largest showing space in the Lincoln Center tents – a circus-like atmosphere prevailed. Hordes of media, celebrities and others crowded the standing-room-only audience. A huge crane suspended above the runway swung a television camera across the crowd.

Designers emerged from backstage to introduce their collections before the models walked. When LeBlanc stepped out, the room erupted in thunderous applause – a testament to his status as an audience favorite.

“Once I was out on stage, finally introducing my collection, all of the crises melted away and I was in my element,” he said. “I was overwhelmed and so fulfilled. I had my mentor, Mr. Gunn, by my side, and I was entranced when I saw my collection on the runway.”

Support from home

LeBlanc’s final look – the intricate “unconventional materials” dress made with hundreds of tiny test tubes – drew an audible gasp of delight from the crowd, followed by another round of applause. It was a moment of public validation for LeBlanc, after a tumultuous journey that he credits his fans back home for getting him through.

“I know I have said this many times, but I absolutely love Raleigh and my Wolfpack family,” he said. “Everyone has been so supportive, and it has given me the energy I needed to keep going. I love this community, and I am sincerely humbled by the opportunity to represent it.”