THE black leather jacket has become as important a fashion statement as the little black dress, gold Rolex and second-hand motorbike. Gone are the days when the black leather jacket was solely associated with whips, chains, a Harley Davidson and a man to match. Today, it is seen as a sophisticated fashion accessory which can be dressed up with a slinky black skirt or dressed down with a pair of jeans. Big name fashion designers have added the black leather jacket to their list of top-class garments, contributing to the image change of the jacket from a rebellious statement to a high-fashion status symbol. Designers including Donna Karan, Claude Montana and Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld are among the growing band of big names to create their own version of the black leather jacket. Young Hongkong people have been seen wearing their new jackets with the tags hanging out so others can see how much money has been spent and, more importantly, which designer label now adorns their back. Costs range from about $700 to $7,000, depending on the label. Leather is judged by the ''hand'', an industry term for the way the material feels. The softer the hand, the higher the quality and the more expensive the jacket will be. There is a set of guidelines provided by the Leather Apparel Association in New York, which outlines the things to look for when you are shopping for your first leather jacket. These guidelines include looking at the stitching, which should be straight and close together. The customer is advised to test all zippers, buttons and drawstrings to make sure they open and close easily. Better quality garments will have a uniform surface, rather than slight variations in texture. Whether the leather is grainy or smooth is a matter of personal preference. Johnny Kar Fashions specialises in leather and furs, selling its products direct to the customer from its store in To Kwa Wan. Spokesperson Ms Teresa Lee said customers should look for a jacket which was versatile. ''You should choose one which can be worn with anything: jeans, pants or a skirt. Black is the most popular colour for a leather jacket because it is so timeless and it can be worn with any colour,'' she said. ''Leather is popular in Hongkong but I think the black leather jacket is the garment that has always been in demand. A lot of young people come to us wanting a leather jacket but, lately, we've been getting several middle-aged customers, too.'' Ms Lee said another popular jacket was the unisex black design. ''This is also great for couples because it means they can buy just one jacket and both the man and the woman can wear it. ''But when you see people on the streets wearing black leather jackets, they seem to be mostly young men or professional people. Whether it will ever be acceptable in the office is another matter. ''Maybe it will one day but I think as of today the jacket is reserved for social times. For most people, the black leather jacket becomes a favourite piece of clothing that they will be able to wear again and again.''