Designer Adrienne Vittadini's fashion sense has always been uncannily correct. But one night last month it steered her wrong. Up for a Coty award against the two brightest new talents in the rag trade, Danny Noble and Stephen Sprouse, Vittadini was convinced that she would lose. But when Morgan Fairchild announced the women's wear winner, it was the sexy lady in the black cashmere halter dress who leaped out of her seat, hugged her husband and ran up to the stage as the black-tie crowd at the Fashion Institute of Technology rose to its feet and gave her a rousing ovation.

That the Hungarian-born Vittadini, 40, has become the queen of knitwear came as no surprise to fashion insiders—nor to her clients, who include dressers as different as Brooke Shields and Gloria Steinem. "Vittadini has been a secret ingredient in the fashion industry for the last 10 years," says Bloomingdale's vice president of fashion direction, Kal Ruttenstein. "She is very talented."

For her fall line, Vittadini has put together a collection of jacquard pulls she calls Henry Higginses, and geometric tops and bottoms inspired by Picasso. But it is her radiant plaids in kaleidoscopic shades—purple, cobalt, marigold—that have drawn raves in the fashion press. "I was trying for a chic hobo look," explains Vittadini. "Humor is very important in my clothes."

The glamour of Seventh Avenue stands in vivid contrast to Vittadini's muted childhood years behind the Iron Curtain. Adrienne's life in Budapest, luxurious by Communist standards, was clouded by the presence of the secret police, who harassed her father, Alexander Toth, a physician in a steel factory and an outspoken critic of the Stalinist regime. As early as age 6, Adrienne was interested in clothes. She devoured her nanny's British fashion magazines. "I remember studying each page," says Vittadini, "memorizing how people dressed, touching each page and feeling how beautiful it was."

During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when Adrienne was 12, she and her family fled to Austria. Within six weeks the Toths had relocated in the States, sponsored by a Quaker family. In Philadelphia Vittadini attended a Catholic girls' school and then enrolled at the Moore College of Art. At first, her father was not pleased with her choice of fashion design as a career. Says Vittadini, "He thought that, coming from an Iron Curtain country, I should do something more sound." But Adrienne's mother, Aranka, supported her daughter and secretly gave her money to buy fabric for her dressmaking classes.

In 1967 Vittadini moved to New York, where, as a fledgling designer, she quickly learned the business. "I found that you have to perform constantly. You can never relax. I can't tell you how many young people I saw come and go in that first year. There was no mercy." By 1971 she was designing knits for Rosanna, a major Seventh Avenue firm. "My first line was terrible," she says. "It was not sophisticated. But I learned fast." Vittadini stayed afloat and in 1979 started her own company. By the end of this year the firm expects to sell nearly a million pieces, doubling its 1983 total. Vittadini's line of coats, sportswear and evening clothes is available in major stores across the country, including Nieman-Marcus and I. Magnin.

In her scramble to the top, Adrienne has been supported by Gianluigi ("Gigi") Vittadini, her Italian-born husband of 12 years who is a business adviser for her firm. The Vittadinis, who have no children, live in an apartment in Manhattan and retreat to their country home on Long Island. There is also a condo in Florida and a flat near St. Moritz. At home Vittadini is an exuberant cook. "Anything Adrienne does," says the admiring Gigi, "she does with a lot of feeling, emotion and drive. It's not just design. It's the way she lives."