by Liza Roberts
photographs by Tim Lytvinenko
“I need to make.” Justin LeBlanc’s fingers fly across a swath of mesh, attaching zip-ties to fabric in careful rows. “I’m a maker. If I don’t make…I go crazy.”
Not that there’s any danger of that. The Raleigh fashion designer makes like it’s going out of style: Clothes; speeches; TV shows; successful students; a growing fan base. But right now, all of that activity is about more than preserving LeBlanc’s sanity. Right now, it’s about transforming LeBlanc from local hero and TV celebrity into a fully-fledged, commercial fashion designer. A brand. A business.
His timing is savvy. The attention and energy that sparked in 2013 when LeBlanc hit the small screen in Lifetime’s popular fashion designer reality show Project Runway (he made it to the finals in season 12) has only grown. LeBlanc had a strong showing in the current season of Project Runway All Stars, where he came in first in two separate challenges and had a winning bathing suit featured in USA Today.
“It’s a prime time” to leap into commercial waters, he says. “I need to take advantage of it, and do it here.”
Here – Raleigh – is important to him. It’s where he grew up and went to N.C. State, it’s where his family is, and where he now works as an assistant professor at State’s College of Design. It’s where he came to terms with the deafness he’s known since birth and where he has learned to harness his heightened visual, artistic, and tactile senses. Raleigh is also where LeBlanc discovered that he was meant to be a fashion designer – not an architect – and where he became one. And now it’s the place where he wants to create sellable clothes with “clean lines and no frills,” garments that are “timeless and comfortable.”
Beauty and accessibility
One recent winter morning, LeBlanc, 28, sits behind his desk at the College of Design, reviewing the collection-in-the-making that he hopes will launch him commercially. Dressed in the grayscale uniform of flat cap, cardigan, and scarf he wears nearly every day, LeBlanc is stealing a moment between his students’ final exams and graduate reviews.
He looks too young for the clipped salt-and-pepper mustache and beard that cover his face. “I have grey hair from the show,” he admits. He’s talking about both seasons of the intense, hermetically-sealed world of Project Runway, where contestants live in close quarters away from the world, live and breathe nothing but fashion and competition, and sleep very little. All Stars, the one still airing, has only just wrapped. “It was very mentally draining. I need to recover for a while.” He laughs. “And I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
To a viewer, the biggest challenge on the show would appear to be the crazy projects the designers are asked to take on: Turning the clothes they just slept in into high fashion in a few hours; transforming carnival prizes they won on Coney Island into dresses; that kind of thing. Not for LeBlanc.
“You can make anything into anything,” he says. “You can make a laptop into a hat.”
The show showed LeBlanc just how adept he can be at this kind of outside-the-box creativity, and how decisive. “I learned how quickly I can make things.” He calls it a new “bad habit” that he can make a garment in a day, a collection in two weeks.
Not this time. He’ll pour a couple of months into the 12 outfits that comprise this collection. Nine sketches of dresses, coats, and jumpsuits – three comprised of the zip-tie-covered-mesh he’s experimenting with – are tacked to a wall; three more will round out the collection. Together, he says, they will tell a story of a woman at a crossroads, on a journey. He expects to produce these garments commercially and to sell them for $300-$700 apiece to real women who will wear them to work, to dinner, to parties.
If his clothes are realistic, his chances are good. “Clearly he can handle turning scraps into art,” says Ashley Harris, owner of North Hills designer boutique Vermillion. “It makes me excited to see what he comes up with. I would love to see how it all translates into something wearable, while keeping true to his aesthetic, true to his sensibility. That’s the key for any creative, artistic designer.”
LeBlanc wants the clothes to be beautiful, he wants them to be tactile, and he wants them to be accessible. Most fashion designers go for beauty; many appreciate fine fabrics, drape, and texture. But not a lot consider – or value – accessibility.
“I don’t like women being restricted from something,” he says. “I think that goes back to my deafness. Because I know how frustrating it is to be limited. And this is my opportunity to ease that.” The collection’s jumpsuit, for instance, is designed to fit a range of three sizes, with a waistband that extends to 35 inches but can be cinched in as well. “I want any woman to feel comfortable in the clothes I’m making.”
Hardship into opportunity
In his modest but frank manner, LeBlanc talks about the road that got him here. “I think being a deaf person allows me to be very visual,” he says. He knows that now, but for a long time, he considered his deafness a hardship.
“Growing up deaf really made my confidence very low,” he says. “I remember the struggle I had to go through to show people what I’m capable of.” During his first semester as an undergraduate at N.C. State, LeBlanc says, “I didn’t want to participate. I just wanted to sit home and watch TV.” Anyone who knows him today would be hard-pressed to imagine it. His success has been hard-won, and it’s changed his life – and clearly changed him, too. “Everything over the last three years has given me the opportunity to show people what deaf people are capable of. I want to be a role model.”
LeBlanc traces the beginnings of that success to N.C. State’s Caldwell Fellows program. It gave him the capacity to serve, to lead, and to believe that he had talent. It was on a Caldwell trip to Thailand, LeBlanc says, that his mindset began to shift: In a remote village where the group was trying to teach children, his sign language suddenly became a bridge of connection. “My deafness can be an opportunity,” he realized. “It was the first time I saw that my deafness didn’t have to be a burden…it gave me the opportunity to look out there and see what I can offer this big, big world we live in.”
It’s a mindset his parents had been working to instill his whole life. LeBlanc credits them – his mother, Kathy Edwards, a lawyer with the N.C. State Ethics Commission and also his manager; and his father, Gerald LeBlanc, head of the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at State – with extraordinary support from his earliest years. “They gave me the opportunity to express myself when I felt like I couldn’t.” LeBlanc’s parents spoke to him aloud and with sign language; they found special speech, sign, and writing teachers for him; they put him in public schools that had programs for the deaf but provided equal access to mainstream curricula, like AB Combs Elementary, Martin Middle School, and Broughton.
“We never considered that he wasn’t going to succeed,” Edwards says. “He’s always been very determined. He doesn’t accept limits at all.” Art, she says, was important to him from a very young age. “He always expressed himself through art.” She remembers pushing his stroller through the galleries at the North Carolina Museum of Art, hoping he’d be inspired. “I thought, something’s gonna catch…I always knew because of his deafness that he was more visually acute.” Still, it wasn’t until her son gave a TED talk in New York last year that she realized just how vital art had been and continues to be for her son: “He said he had equal access to the expression of art… because it’s not based in words.”
At 18, LeBlanc decided to get a cochlear implant, which replaces the function of the inner ear. Until that point, “I was one of those proud deaf people. I didn’t want one.” When he changed his mind, it opened up his world further, in practical but also subtle ways. For the first time he heard rain, and the songs of birds, and the crackle of a fire.
Still, verbal language was never – still isn’t – LeBlanc’s most natural way to communicate with the world. “Being a deaf person, spoken language is not my first language.” Art is. “I can make things, and let them speak for themselves.”
Grit and vision
Over the course of one recent weekend, LeBlanc worked late in his studio at the Design School to finish three garments for his new collection; flew to Las Vegas to deliver a speech about the use of 3D printing in fashion at the Consumer Electronics Show; attended a Los Angeles reunion party of Project Runway co-stars; then took the red eye home in time to pose for photographs to accompany this article and to begin shooting the short film he’ll make to introduce his new collection.
He works fast, but he’s not hasty. “I’m a perfectionist,” he says at his studio table, surrounded by patterns, silk crepe, and pins. It took him about 80 hours over Christmas break to affix 12,000 zip ties to the collection’s showstopping full-length dress, shown at right. Before he attached them to the mesh fabric, he dyed the zip ties himself to get the precise shade of purpley-black he wanted. “I like control over my work.”
The zip tie idea was born on a November episode of Project Runway All Stars, when contestants were challenged to make a garment out of whatever they could find on a construction site. LeBlanc spotted zip ties lying around, immediately recognized their potential, and “pounced on them,” gathering up as many as he could carry. He also grabbed a strip of white plastic fencing material, which provided a framework. A stunning dress – geometric but feminine – was born.
“Oh my God,” said fellow contestant Fabio Costa, when he saw it. “Justin is a genius.” The show’s notoriously demanding judges agreed: “I think it’s a perfect little dress,” said Georgina Chapman, founder of the fashion label Marchesa. Designer Isaac Mizrahi was bowled over: It’s like “like some kind of wonderful bird,” he crowed. “Absolutely gorgeous,” agreed show host Alyssa Milano.
LeBlanc’s pride is fresh. “I loved that dress so much,” he says. “That’s why I’m bringing it back for this collection.”
Another dramatic dress LeBlanc made on Project Runway – again from the unlikeliest of materials – was immortalized by judge Nina Garcia last December as her single favorite design from the show’s first 10 years. “It was a showstopper,” she told Entertainment Weekly, “and gave viewers the chance to see just how innovative he is as a designer.’’ Spangled with tiny pipette test-tubes, the dress was part of LeBlanc’s final collection for the show’s 12th season, and also featured 3D-printed shoulder plates.
“If it was made with 3D printing and test tubes, it had to be from N.C. State,” Chancellor Randy Woodson said, congratulating LeBlanc.
LeBlanc is a huge fan of 3D printing, which also turned up in that collection’s necklaces and belts, designed to resemble sound waves. “It has the possibility of changing our way of life,” he says of the technology, and predicts that within a decade, we’ll all have 3D printers at home for everyday necessities. In the meantime, he’s using it not just for runway looks but to make the charming, unlikely bow-ties that he wears on Project Runway and sells on his website to customers as far away as Dubai.
It wasn’t long ago – or far away – that LeBlanc was studying the design not of clothes, but of buildings. The studio where he made models and earned an architecture degree is across the street from where he’s now dreaming up gowns. He can see it out his office window.
In 2008 – as an architecture-major senior on the cusp of graduating – LeBlanc entered the Design School’s prestigious Art2Wear show at the urging of professor Lope Max Diaz (possibly Raleigh’s most influential and prolific creative mentor). After teaching him in just one class, Diaz told him he was a fashion designer and needed to pursue it. LeBlanc ended up winning Best in Show for his sartorial interpretations of the seven deadly sins. He knew that celebrated Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long would be a judge, so LeBlanc orchestrated “a little bit of theatre” and found himself wrapped up in every detail. Not just of the clothes, but of the show. He taped the floor to guide his models’ footsteps, taught each one how to walk to best embody her “sin,” and had separate pieces of music composed to accompany each one. In the process, he discovered his life’s calling. But he knew he had a lot to learn.
Three years of studying fashion at the Art Institute of Chicago changed that; he left in 2012 with a post-baccalaureate certificate in fashion and a Master of Design in fashion. He also interned for celebrated Chicago artist and designer Nick Cave, and for Alexander McQueen in London. Both gave LeBlanc an appreciation for the fusion of art and fashion. While in Europe, LeBlanc met Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen, whose incorporation of unusual materials inspired LeBlanc to explore 3D printing.
And then he came home. He accepted his job at N.C. State, and he applied to Project Runway.
Color is not LeBlanc’s thing. Not for the clothes he wears or the clothes he makes. “I have a weird thing with color,” he says. “If I want to surprise people, I wear navy.” But the last time he can remember going even that far was last October, when he had to, as a groomsman in his best friend Matt Tomasulo’s wedding.
So this latest collection represents a departure of sorts: He’s “forcing” himself to use a deep purple for some pieces. It’s a slight contrast to the black, white, and grey of the rest. “Previously, the only color I used was orange lipstick” on models. He did try a bit of green last spring, but it was so pale “you couldn’t really see it.”
Keeping his palette monochromatic has focused LeBlanc’s mind on the elements that are most meaningful to him. Structure, shape, and silhouette speak to his architectural background. A heightened sense of touch has him fixated on texture. And an acute appreciation for sound has him creating clothes that make subtle music as they move. Dangling zip-ties whisper; silk crepe swishes.
Increasingly, too, his attention has shifted to all things local. He deflects questions about his own talent to talk about the talent around him: here in the building where he teaches, in the community of Raleigh, and in the state of North Carolina. “This is my North Carolina collection,” he says, gesturing to the sketches that fill his wall. “I want to showcase what North Carolina is all about, and embrace the creativity we have here.”
Fabric, materials, and models typically come from New York, L.A., or Europe. “Why?” he asks. “We have it all here.” LeBlanc and his “momager” drove all over the state in the month of December to find North Carolina textile mills that could provide the fabric he needs for his new designs. They scooped up samples at Contempora Fabrics in Lumberton and met sustainable, locally-committed manufacturers and sewers in Conover and Morganton who can help him put his pieces into production. Closer to home, LeBlanc used his friend Matt Tomasulo’s City Fabric cityscape art to print on to silk at Durham’s custom fabric printer, Spoonflower. “I’m learning so much about our state that makes me proud.”
Giving back to the local community also inspires his teaching, which is something he wasn’t originally sure he wanted to do. Then, “I saw how passionate my father is, and I want to pass on knowledge,” he says.
His students are among his staunchest fans. “He has a brilliant aesthetic…and he encourages you to think outside your first concept,” says Sophie Wiseman-Floyd, who took a shoemaking class from him in the fall. “He’s able to raise up other people.”
LeBlanc says that’s his goal: “I have only one life. I want to share and pass it on.”
And have fun in the process. He’s producing the fashion show that will debut this collection in his mind as he makes the clothes. The show – at CAM Raleigh Feb. 13 – will aim to entertain.
“It’s a way to let people experience the fantasy I live in,” he says. He’s inspired by Alexander McQueen, whose shows were “over the top” and set an artistic tone for his wearable collections. “For me, the challenge is: How can I make something interesting and wearable?”
LeBlanc likes his models to appear to float, so his hems skim the floor, and he puts every woman in the same shoes. Recently he bought 25 pairs of the same cantilevered strappy sandals so that any model could wear them. He chose the style because “they look like the intersection of roads.”
That expense, and the cost of the silk crepe he is custom-printing, the dye, the 3D printer material, the zip ties – all of it – he hopes to fund through the sale of his T-shirts, his tote bags that feature a stylized version of the American Sign Language sign for ‘I love you’, and the 3D-printed bow ties he makes, on his website. He expects the collection to cost him $5,000 to $8,000 to produce. Paying for it all – and then making money out of it – is not the part of this endeavor he’s most comfortable with it. Launching his own business in general is a big departure.
“It makes me very nervous,” he admits. “I think I need to start small and then think big.” Clearly, he needs capital, and says he’s “constantly looking for investors.” What do they say when he asks them to invest? “I don’t ask,” he says. “It’s unnatural to ask.”
He doesn’t find it unnatural to create. As LeBlanc mentally orchestrates his CAM fashion show, he’s also considering possibilities for the film he’ll make to showcase it for the rest of the world. Like the collection, he wants it to tell the story of “a crossroads, and a journey,” he says. “It’s about direction, and leaving oneself, and finding oneself. An endless journey.”