Raleigh designer Justin LeBlanc returns to ‘Runway’

Just a year ago, Raleigh’s Justin LeBlanc was fresh off his first show at New York Fashion Week, competing as a finalist on “Project Runway.” Now, though he didn’t win, he’s back in the spotlight as a competitor on “Project Runway All Stars,” premiering Thursday night on Lifetime.

LeBlanc says he was excited to return to the show with a bit more experience under his belt.

“Although the judges and mentors are different, I am more prepared this time around,” he says. “I know what to expect. I know that I will have to survive with little sleep and have to contend with endless drama – and to always expect the unexpected from the design challenges.” (Although LeBlanc spoke in present tense, the “All Stars” show has actually finished shooting.)

In last year’s “Runway” finale, LeBlanc, who graduated from and currently teaches fashion and design at N.C. State, presented a Fashion Week collection 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 at the time. “For me, this is a very emotional and personal story. I hope that I can convey that emotion to others through my collection.”

LeBlanc’s final look – an 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.

At the time of his elimination, host Heidi Klum told him, “We’re so impressed with your collection.” An emotional LeBlanc told the camera: “Just growing up being a deaf person and having people constantly tell me that I’m not capable of doing things I want to do, that’s definitely something that’s scarring. ‘Project Runway’ has given me the opportunity so I can prove these people wrong.”

The new show includes familiar faces: Fellow “Runway” Season 12 competitors Helen Castillo, Kate Pankoke and Alexandria von Bromssen. (Marie Claire editor Zanna Roberts Rassi mentors the “All Stars,” rather than Tim Gunn, who became famous as the “Project Runway” mentor.)

“I will be more comfortable being around people who I now call my friends,” he says. “But that won’t stop me from competing against them.”

LeBlanc says he was excited to work alongside a new set of designers, as well, including Season 10 winner Dmitry Sholokhov and Season 11 winner Michelle Lesniak.

“Some of the designers were season winners,” LeBlanc says. “So I will certainly have to be at the top of my game. But I will have a unique opportunity to see their design process and appreciate different design aesthetics.”

One thing that didn’t change this time around: LeBlanc’s motivation to represent his school and state.

“I hope I won’t disappoint the N.C. State and North Carolina community,” he says. “The support I have received over the past year has been unbelievable. You have no idea how much it means to me.”