He likes the element of surprise. The surprise might be glittering bows and flowers on a simple silhouette . . . a bold, graphic motif on a classically shaped suit . . . a flouncy hem on a straight, no-nonsense sweater dress. . . .

"I think it's fun to do clean-cut basics and then give them a little twist that makes the customer stop in her tracks," explains Steve Fabrikant, one of the hottest new designers on the scene right now. "After all, surprises keep fashion interesting and fun."Fabrikant, who was born in Brazil and moved to New York at 14, is noted for his knits - smart, shapely clothes that often come in designs not normally associated with sweater dressing. A woman ought to be able to find whatever style she wants in a knit, he believes. And so, his label covers the gamut. There's something for every occasion, whether it's a day at the office or a night on the town.

Although knits are his specialty, lately the young designer has moved into regular fabrics as well, expanding the collection and increasing his challenges and options as a creative artist.

"It's fun to do these other clothes," he says, "but knits are my first love. No matter how much we expand and grow, I can't see this ever changing. I believe in sweater dressing too strongly and have since the beginning."

The beginning was 1984. That's when the label was launched and store buyers began flocking to Steve Fabrikant's door. Ask him how he has managed to be so successful in a poor economic climate, and he will attribute it to need.

"My things are practical," emphasizes the designer. "I mean, what's easier to wear or care for than knits? Women today need clothes that don't require a lot fuss. They have to stuff them in suitcases and go on business trips. They have to wear them all day at the office. There's no time for styles that wrinkle in a few minutes or that don't span the seasons and adapt to a variety of climates and temperatures."

Fabrikant's clothes also show lighthearted touches of wit and whimsy - very refreshing in an industry that frequently takes itself too seriously. And they're virtually timeless in design, a fact in which Fabrikant takes great pride.

"I follow what's going on in the fashion world, certainly. But the silhouettes I do never are particularly faddy," he explains. "Lots of tucks and darts and all that stuff just aren't me. I like rich colors, strong patterns and sleek, architectural designs. That's chic dressing."

To look chic in Steve Fabrikant isn't cheap. Simple knits often sell for around $470. But it should be noted that although this sounds high, it's far less than many designer clothes on the market today. And the quality, most fashion authorities agree, is excellent.

An appreciation for quality was fostered by Fabrikant's parents who ran a ready-to-wear firm and were constantly talking about such subjects as construction, fabric and design around the dining room table.

"They taught me to never be satisfied with an inferior product," he says.

Joining his parents in their ready-to-wear business, however, wasn't his goal at first. He wanted to try his own wings and get into some other facet of designing. Eventually, the young man settled on architecture, studying at the Polytechnic of Central London and graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1976. But after working in the field for about a year, loyalty drew him back into the family firm.

"I began learning fashion and how to design knits and, to my surprise, found it fascinating," Fabrikant says. "I think maybe I'd avoided the business when I was a kid just because it was family owned and operated. Other things - far away things - looked more attractive. And then I found what I really wanted had been right under my nose all the time!"

What about courses in fashion or design school?

"I was completely self-taught," replies the designer. "My family offered guidance, of course, but most of what I know came through actual experience - making mistakes, correcting them and slowly finding my way."

In April of 1984, after interning at the family firm, Fabrikant had the opportunity to join forces with Ray Wisner and launch his own label. The two began modestly and carefully - Wisner handling the financial end; Fabrikant doing the designing and most of the selling.

Knits were targeted because of their practicality. And then the two began contacting stores, telling them about their fashion specialty and how it could bring a whole new dimension into customers' lives.

"We hit on that need thing," explains Fabrikant. "We told store reps that knits were the coming thing, the modern thing in fashion. We told them women needed them."

To the delight of the partners, stores saw the logic - and they bought. The profits began to increase.

Today, Fabrikant's line is carried in specialty shops throughout the country and the list is continually growing.

Just who wears the clothes?

Customers of all ages, the designer says. But to his way of thinking, the lady who wears the clothes really well has been around a while - long enough to develop her own sense of style and a definite sophistication.