“Project Runway” judge Nina Garcia seems to be especially tough on Anthony Ryan Auld, the Baton Rouge designer who this week heads into the show as the apparent frontrunner.

Auld, an LSU alum, is the only designer to have finished in the top three in each of the three episodes aired to date in the ninth season of Lifetime Television’s Emmy Award-winning show.

So when it was announced that the challenge for Thursday night’s show would be to design for Garcia, the fashion editor of Marie Claire magazine, Auld must have been petrified. Right?

“No, I wasn’t scared,” said a laughing Auld on Monday. “I was excited. I always wanted to talk with her since I got on the show.”

Garcia, however, has not always shown Auld the love.

In the last two episodes, Garcia has commented that Auld seems to be referencing the work of other designers. In episode two, she said Auld’s birdseed dress (it was an unconventional materials challenge) was “a too literal (Alexander) McQueen interpretation,” and last Thursday she thought his design was Gucci-inspired.

Auld said he wasn’t bothered by Garcia’s words.

“I didn’t think twice about it,” he said. “I know where my inspiration comes from. I had never seen that Gucci dress. …

“My inspiration came from a pillow in our hotel. I actually cut three petals off the pillow to see the overall shape. … And doing something on the shoulders is nothing new for me. I’ve always been attracted to doing shoulders or the neckline.”

Auld and partner Laura Kathleen, of St. Louis, won the challenge, which called for the contestants to design for models on stilts. Their creation of a red dress over red pants with hundreds of red petals clustered on the shoulders won the top honors.

However, the designers worked in pairs, and there could only be one winner. Auld graciously gave it, which carries immunity in this week’s show, to Laura Kathleen, who has called herself “privileged pretty girl.”

While it seemed Garcia was picking on Auld (a feeling many fans have expressed on message boards), he said he didn’t take it that way.

“Nina wants you to be better,” Auld said. “She’s rooting for you to be better than you are right now. I love Nina. She gives constructive feedback, and I needed that to push myself further.”

When it came to designing a look for Garcia, Auld said he enjoyed the challenge.

“She shoots straight,” Auld said, adding that he much prefers working with a client who has a clear vision of what she wants.

As for giving Laura Kathleen the win last week, Auld said both of them labored hard on the ensemble.

“We worked really well together, and we weren’t going to try to throw each other under the bus,” Auld said.

That gracious attitude has somewhat paid off for Auld. He has now neck and neck with Anya Ayoung-Chee in the fan favorite contest, which carries a $10,000 prize.

Fans can visit Auld’s hashtag — #PR9anthonyryan — to tweet their support. You can log into Twitter within the “Project Runway” Season 9 site at http://www.myLifetime.com and tweet from each designer’s page.

Gentlemanly Southern manners aside, Auld also said his secret weapon — his sister Natalie Auld Gayden in Houston — is working overtime to help him in the fan polling.

“She’s doing rhyming hour from 4 to 5 (p.m.) every day,” Auld said laughing, but noting that it’s paying off.

“When this started, I had about 50 followers (on Twitter). Now I have 1,400 to 1,500. People from Thailand and Canada and all over the place are tweeting their support. Some people are voting every day, every hour,” he said.

“Project Runway” has finished taping its challenge episodes for the season, and the three finalists are now designing their collections to be presented Sept. 9 at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York. That episode will air in late October.

The winning designer will get $100,000 from L’Oreal Paris to start his or her own line, a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine, a $50,000 technology suite by HP and Intel and the opportunity to design and sell an exclusive collection on http://www.piperlime.com.