These days, Carol Hannah Whitfield, the lovable South Carolina pixie who nearly won last season’s Project Runway, can’t leave her New York City apartment without strangers asking to take her picture. But when she entered Charleston Fashion Week’s Emerging Local Designer Competition two years ago, she was just another Charleston girl.

The self-taught designer’s whimsical debut collection dazzled at Marion Square in 2008, giving her the confidence she needed to quit her day job and audition for season six of Project Runway.

Whitfield made it onto the wildly popular reality show and captivated a national audience with her maturation from a timid coed into an unflappable design star — famously soldiering on after becoming terribly ill in the final challenge. Her feminine designs, Southern charm, and determination took her all the way to the Project Runway championship, where as one of three semi-finalists, she presented her collection at New York Fashion Week.

So, it comes as no surprise that this 24-year-old College of Charleston graduate and self-described nerd, who once rode her bike everywhere in Charleston and designed clothes for friends out of her Rutledge Avenue apartment, has been voted Best Designer by City Paper readers. Whitfield describes the award as an “honor,” and she is amazed at the support she has received from the Charleston community she cherishes so much.

“The past year and a half has been a whirlwind, and Charleston Fashion Week was really the launching point,” Whitfield says. “I love living in New York City and love the direction life has taken me, but I do miss Charleston on a daily basis.”

Despite her recent move to the Big Apple, where she shares a Garment District studio with fellow Project Runway contestant Logan Neitzel (with whom she had a memorable flirtation during the show), Whitfield remains close to her South Carolina roots, which she feels have given her an edge in the design world.

“It’s funny to me that a lot of people don’t think there’s fashion outside of major cities,” Whitfield says. “It is so important to have a unique point of view as a designer. After all, it’s not like the world needs another designer, so you have to have something special to offer.”

Whitfield is thrilled to return as a featured designer at this year’s Charleston Fashion Week. The seasoned competitor has some wisdom to pass down to this year’s Emerging Local Designer contestants: Stay true to yourself.

“Make sure the collection clearly states who you are as a designer,” she says. “If there’s anything in the line that reads like it’s from another designer or looks like something already out there, edit it out.”

When asked for suggestions to increase Charleston’s fashion industry clout, she advises, “We need to make sure that [CFW] focuses on looking ahead to the future of fashion in addition to showing what’s available in stores around town,” she says. “It would also be great down the road to make the event twice a year in order to represent all seasons.”

The highlight of Whitfield’s Charleston Fashion Week visit will be the debut of her wedding line during the Bridal Couture event.

“Most of my design background is actually in bridal,” says Whitfield.

She’s quick to admit that she’s been developing this line for quite some time.

The collection plays off of Whitfield’s contemporary romantic aesthetic and offers, “a fresher take on bridal” by avoiding the typical bridal accoutrements such as lace and beading. According to Whitfield, Fashion Week attendants can expect to see, “gowns with a lot of contrast between structure and draping, along with embellishment in the form of fabric manipulation.” The line’s 15 bridal gowns and eight bridesmaid dresses are available for purchase at Maddison Row and Bella Bridesmaid.

Although jogs along the Battery, cupcakes from Sugar, and afternoons sunning on Sullivan’s (where she once lived) are no longer on her daily agenda, the in-demand Whitfield is having fun hosting fashion events and blogging for People magazine and the Lifetime channel.

With her success, the supremely likeable Whitfield has proven that South Carolina can design with fashion’s best. She says, “Charleston is definitely positioned as a fashion leader in the Southeast, and I think that things like the Emerging Local Designer competition are crucial to that.”

If Whitfield is an indication of what is to come, Charleston has a bright fashion future ahead of us.