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HCC student wants ‘Project Runway’ spot

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    Honolulu Community College student Randy Leaño is pictured with a gown he made from trash bags that took first place in a local eco-design contest.
    Randy Leaño had a career as a music professor before participating in "Project Runway Philippines." He enrolled in Honolulu Community College's fashion technology program to get the formal design education he never had.

Since Andy South’s success reaching the finals of "Project Runway" in season eight, his instructors at Honolulu Community College have been on the lookout for the school’s next breakout talent, and leading up to the casting deadline for season 10, they’re pinning their hopes on Randy Leaño.

"He is the miracle student," said instructor Karen Hastings. "He was paid to go back to the Philippines to produce a pageant, and he got all of his work done for the time he was gone before he left. That is, two weeks of work handed in before he got on the plane. His attitude actually infuses the whole class, and they do better."

No pressure. The designer already knows the routine, having made it onto "Project Runway Philippines" in 2009, when he was ousted in the fifth week of competition. That hasn’t discouraged him from trying out for the American version of the design reality series.

Other hopefuls, who must be 21 and older, have until March 15 to get their portfolio and video together for the show’s casting committee.

Leaño, who’s in his early 30s and had a career as a music professor before participating in "Project Runway Philippines," entered the design world through entertainment, creating costumes and designs for many of his students and other performers. When he faced the casting committee, he said, "I think they were fascinated that I was an educator and a fashion designer.

"It’s always been my interest to sew. My mother was a seamstress, but I got a Barbie doll when I was 10 and asked, ‘Mom, can you design something for my Barbie?’ Maybe she knew how, but she refused to do it because she didn’t want to encourage me," he said.

"My mother and father tried so hard to turn me into a boy," Leaño said of being gay. "I was forced to learn to sew on my own."

It wasn’t hard to learn. In the Philippines, he said, every youth learns basic sewing techniques in school. More advanced classes are available in high school.

Although Leaño’s life was comfortable in the Philippines, he came to Hawaii in August 2010 at his father’s insistence and found it difficult to adjust.

"My sister said the first thing I have to do is look for a job, but whenever I applied, no one would believe that I was a professor and that I had done all these things," he said, including directing international beauty pageants.

"I tried everything: retail stores, dishwasher, airport jobs; I was always turned down."

At one drugstore he was told he had to conform to a dress code that meant cutting his long hair.

"I had to ask myself, ‘Is this what I want?’"

Luckily, a month into his search, he met the owner of Salon R & Spa, who offered him a design space within his shop, allowing Leaño to build up a local clientele.

"I believed that in the past I was destined to be somebody else’s source of help — financial and emotional — so when I came here, I felt so helpless. I’m grateful that somebody helped me."

With some time to spare, he enrolled in Hono­lulu Community College’s fashion technology program to get the formal design education he never had, and said it came as a relief to finally know he was doing some things right.

"It was a reaffirmation of what I already know, as well as know that some assumptions I had were true and some were not. As an educator, I feel that in everyday life you can always learn things, and even when I grow old, the thing I would want to do is go to school again and never stop learning."

Although Leaño doesn’t want to box himself in by typecasting himself as one kind of designer, saying he can create anything from shorts to street wear, he aspires to the sort of romantic, fairy tale wedding gowns created by Monique Lhuillier.

Even if he doesn’t make it to "Project Runway," he aspires to be in New York one day.

"That’s my ultimate goal," he said. "I don’t think it’s hard to work as a designer here. Competition is not as fierce here as in the Philippines, but at the same time, there are more resources in the Philippines. If you want help beading, anything, you can ask someone to do it for you. There’s a whole level of creativity you can reach when anything is possible. When I go to a fabric store here, I can’t find the fabric I’m looking for.

"In Hawaii, fashion is not the primary enterprise, so I have a feeling this is not my place."

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