THE overall winner of the Hongkong Young Designers' Show gets $15,000 in prize money, a round-trip to Europe and instant celebrity, albeit of the domestic kind. This is incentive enough to send would-be Saint Laurents into near-frenzy and organiser, the Trade Development Council, into a similar state as entries come pouring in - more than 140 this year, setting a new record. Now consider the Smirnoff International Fashion Awards, held by the famous vodka maker and open to fashion students worldwide. This year, for the first time, Hongkong has joined the quest for glory which has attracted entries from 28 countries - a big jump from last year's 15 - and will reach its culmination on October 19 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There, a high-powered international panel of judges will choose the winner who, no doubt, will be visibly moved when the grand prize is handed over: a cheque for US$10,000 (HK$78,000) to be used for either further training, or as part of a fashion business initiative. Was there a stampede in Hongkong? Not exactly. Only 41 students from the top four - the Hongkong Polytechnic's Swire School of Design and Institute of Clothing and Technology, the Sha Tin Technical Institute and the Kwun Tong Technical Institute - entered the Smirnoff competition. This week, 20 of them, including 14 from the Hongkong Polytechnic, were selected as finalists. A piece of cake, to be sure, though Jan Stevens, head of fashion at the Swire School, puts the modest response firmly into perspective. ''Basically, this is a priming exercise for Hongkong and though we're all for it, the timing was very tight for our students. ''They're now at their busiest, preparing major course work, so for many it was a question of priorities. As my students said when they heard of the competition, 'It's brilliant, but we have to pass our exams.' ''Still, quite a few have gone in for it and achieved a really good standard.'' Ms Stevens, who taught fashion at Britain's Kingston University and University of Central Lancashire before coming to Hongkong, is thoroughly familiar with the Smirnoff competition. ''It's huge in the UK - thousands of entries - and just the sort of thing we need here. My hope is that the competition will also be open to China in future and I've proposed a sort of roadshow to the organisers. ''The idea is that a couple of the Smirnoff people and I would go to the main fashion schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and explain the benefits of competing internationally.'' There will be a taste of it on June 30 at the Grand Hyatt ballroom when the 20 Hongkong finalists present their capsule collections - just three garments each - at a glamorous show produced by creative team Angelo Ho and Peter Kjaer. Six judges including leading designer William Tang and Joyce Boutiques' fashion director Danuta Ryder, will select the winner who will be flown to Brazil for the big one. The odds will be considerably tougher there and going by the 1992 winner, Canada's Frederic Tremblay, inventiveness will count for much. A student at St Martin's School of Design in London, the 19-year-old romped to victory by transforming second-hand shirts and tweeds into a stunning patchwork jacket and trousers. Tremblay wasn't the only entrant to go in for recycling - or ''recoup'' to use the current buzzword in Paris - but he did it best. This year's theme is ''The Pure Thrill of Living'' and while Ms Stevens reckons the brief didn't throw her students - ''they're used to that sort of thing'' - others may have been intimidated. ''Creative fashion,'' would-be entrants read, ''is both contradictory and deceptive and the designer's role is to anticipate and interpret the ambiguity that exists within the creative force. ''Create an aura of thrill, excitement and adventure through the concept of purity. Take pure natural fabrics and use clear colour in order to express the celebration and joy of The Pure Thrill of Living.'' Contrasting powerfully with this heady stuff was Smirnoff president, the down-to-earth Dennis Malamatinas who visited Hongkong last month. He liked what he saw. ''I'm flabbergasted. An extraordinary city and definitely the centre of fashion in this part of the world,'' said the Smirnoff boss, adding that he was pleased by the local response to the competition ''especially for a first time.'' It's been around for a while. Originally called the Smirnoff Young Designer Awards, it was born in Paris in 1982 when the company sponsored fashion school cocktail parties to mark students' graduating collections. With celebrities such as Catherine Deneuve, Kenzo and Thierry Mugler joining in the fun, invitations were highly coveted and in 1984 the parties evolved into the first student competition, held in Britain. Soon, countries throughout Europe were organising semi-finals and 1991 saw the first Smirnoff International Fashion Awards. It's no misnomer. Joining the Hongkong winner in Brazil will be finalists from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore - to say nothing of talents from as afield as Australia and Iceland. As with most fashion competitions, they will be judged on creativity, originality, execution and perception of the theme. There is one absolute no-no. ''Smirnoff branding must not be used as part of the design,'' the vodka people warn sternly.