MICHAEL RADNOR was surprised when his girlfriend asked for a black leather motorcycle jacket for Christmas.
"I just would never have pictured her in a biker jacket," said Radnor. "I thought I knew her pretty well, but this threw me."
"That's kind of the point," said Sherry Darnell, the girlfriend in question. "Everybody who knows me thinks I'm so prim and proper. I get tired of that image. I do have a wilder side."
Radnor and Darnell were shopping together before the holidays so she could point out some specific styles. Radnor spotted a leather trench coat, and dropped a few hints of his own.
"You have a trench coat," Darnell reminded him.
"Not a leather one," he insisted.
Over the years, leather has had many images, but often has played an ironically dual role: badge of rebellion at one end of the spectrum, status symbol at the other.
Lately, those images are merging. Big-name fashion designers among them Claude Montana, Donna Karan and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel have successfully usurped leather's bad-boy image for high-ticket items.
Consider Karan's version of the motorcycle jacket, which sold out of department stores this fall, retailing for more than $700.
Made of buttery soft leather and cut long enough to cover the hips, this jacket's primary resemblance to the real thing is its zipper detailing. Purveyors of honest-to-goodness motorcycle styles point out that bikers need a sturdier leather when riding their Harleys; it helps cut the wind and can also help protect the body in an accident. The jacket is cropped at the waist to make sitting on the bike easier and more comfortable.
All of which, of course, means nothing to fashion designers or their customers, who are more interested in aesthetics than practicality.
Likewise, Chanel's version of the classic bomber originally made for aviators and other rough-and-rugged types is of quilted leather in its softest state. It features the signature double-C gold buttons and is trimmed inside with Chanel's distinctive gold chains. It sells for $3,880.
The typical leather customer is a professional person, according to Kathy Handy, who manages the Wilson store in Dearborn, Mich. "These days, people look at leather more as a fashion statement, whereas it used to be more associated with rough people."
"The thing I like about my leather trench is how versatile it is," says James Woody, a computer analyst. "I own three leather jackets, but this coat is the best, because I can wear it over my suits to work and over jeans on the weekend."
In fact, the classic trench is a best-seller among yuppie types.
Men, by and large, still prefer leather in basic colors of black or brown, and usually won't veer far from the jacket or coat (though more men, especially young men, are buying leather pants, retailers say). But as leather becomes more acceptable at the office, they are also buying "specialty" styles, trimmed in fur or featuring decorative detailing.
Women, on the other hand, are just as likely to buy an entire leather outfit, perhaps even a suit they can wear to work and also wear out at night.
"I started out with a leather coat and just kept going," says Janet Kelly, an advertising copywriter.
"I just love how it feels," she says. "It can look very conservative, but still very fashionable. And I can feel a little bad at the same time."
Which may be leather's most alluring quality of all.