Published: July 10, 2013 Updated 2 hours ago
By Jennifer Bringle — Correspondent
Justin LeBlanc never planned to be a fashion designer.
Though he always had an eye for design, he was more interested in buildings and structures as an architecture major at N.C. State. But after taking a studio class in fashion on a whim, everything changed.
“His professor, Lope Max Diaz, thought he had an innate ability and encouraged him to enter the annual Art2Wear competition,” says LeBlanc’s mother, Kathleen Edwards. “Justin designed seven dresses – the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ collection. He won Best of Show.”
“Everybody has been really excited, especially the students,” says Katherine Diguid, LeBlanc’s colleague and assistant professor of design at N.C. State. “For some of them, ‘Project Runway’ is what really got them into fashion. So to go from being a huge fan to having one of your professors on the show, they’re just beside themselves with excitement.”
“Project Runway” challenges designers each week to create pieces – often using nontraditional materials such as furnishings, plants and even food – that are then worn in a weekly fashion show and judged.
Diguid thinks LeBlanc’s architectural background gives him an edge over his fellow contestants.
“He’s just got that sense of being open to exploration to see what the materials do, and the architectural eye with regard to form and proportions,” says Diguid. “He’s constantly working with very different materials, so he’d be more likely to pick something that someone might not see potential in and create something spectacular.”
Another trait certain to make LeBlanc stand out from the other “Project Runway” competitors is the fact that he’s nearly deaf. Born with severe sensorineural hearing loss, LeBlanc received a cochlear implant at age 18 that enables him to hear well enough to use the phone, though he still signs.
But those who know him say LeBlanc doesn’t allow his hearing loss to prevent him from making a statement.
“Justin, despite his deafness, has always been very outgoing,” says Edwards. “He has never known a stranger. He adapted to the hearing aids very well and rapidly learned to sign and speak.”
Friends also say his hearing loss has served as a creative catalyst for LeBlanc, making him more keenly aware of visual and tactile design aspects, such as fabric color and texture.
“He’s very conceptual,” says LeBlanc’s friend and N.C. State classmate Nicole Alvarez. “He had these gloves that he’d cut open and he was pushing these pins through the gloves, making this really amazing faux fur-like effect. He likes to experiment with these harsh materials and see how he can implement them into wearable art, conceptual art on the body rather than ready-to-wear.”
Alvarez says LeBlanc’s experience at N.C. State will make him a fierce competitor on the show.
“I can see him doing really well because he’s used to that studio environment from going to State and his graduate work in Chicago,” says Alvarez. “Being in that environment helps you to push yourself to really do well.”
Fans of the show know that the actual design work is only part of the challenge. Dealing with an array of personalities that range from no-nonsense mentor Tim Gunn to high-strung fellow designers can be just as daunting as creating fashion on the fly. But those who know LeBlanc best feel certain he’ll handle it all with ease.
“I think he has the perfect personality to weather what sometimes can be a very difficult competition,” says Edwards. “I have great faith in Justin.”
Now LeBlanc, who grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Broughton High School, is among the 15 designers competing on the upcoming season of “Project Runway,” premiering July 18 on Lifetime.
LeBlanc is currently filming for the show, sequestered from contact with family and friends.
“In the beginning we constantly said, ‘I wonder what Justin is doing?’ ” says Edwards. “We miss him and hope he is enjoying his great adventure – and hopefully has satisfied his dad’s request that he get an autographed picture of (show host) Heidi Klum.”
LeBlanc’s journey to the fashion design competition began in that N.C. State studio class and took him to Chicago, where he earned a master of design in fashion, body and garment degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. From there, he interned in London at Alexander McQueen’s studio. Last year, LeBlanc returned to Raleigh to teach fashion design at his alma mater