Was it really only 10 years ago that black leather was the prerogative of the blousons noir, mostly the young bikers for whom the beaten-up black leather jackets offered protection and style? And not much more recently than that, black leather was coopted first by Claude Montana in his bold and aggressive styles for Ideal Cuir.

Now, it seems, everyone wears black leather. Ladies in Chanel wear black leather and Givenchy fans do, too. Ralph Lauren fanciers wear leather trench coats, and Azzedine Alaia aficionados wear leather dresses, skirts and coats. (Alaia makes the sexiest leathers -- as well as the sexiest everything else.)

But it is no longer just a designer privilege to work in leather nor high prices that make leather clothes acceptable. At Up Against the Wall, you can find super black leather pants for men and women at $89 to $120; at Georgetown Leather, pants start at $99, and at Tannery West, the budget line of leather and suede has pants for $90, skirts for $75 and jackets starting at $195.

With so many people of all ages investing in leather, it's time to review the care and feeding of leather garments. Be warned that leather stretches and marks, but many find the stretching and softening part of leather's tactile appeal.

Ralph Sherman, president of the New York-based Leathercraft, which many designers call upon for leather care, offers these pointers worth remembering:

* Store leather articles in a dry, cool, dark place. Avoid leaving them in sunlight. Do not store them in plastic.

* If your leather becomes imprinted with a foreign design -- say you sat in the car on your comb -- you can remove the imprint by covering the area with brown paper and pressing on it lightly with a barely warm iron. Do NOT use steam.

* The same process applies to suede. After ironing, brush lightly with a clean kitchen sponge to bring up the nap.

* There is little you can do with scratches, short of having the garment professionally refinished.

* Wear perspiration shields. Chemicals in perspiration can destroy leather.

* Be careful in choosing a leather-care professional. Look for someone who does a large number of garments and ask to see samples of his work. 130:Pictures 1 and 2, Coats by Lauren and Alaia