He doesn't claim to have invented anything: "Everything in fashion has been done before," he once said. And he makes a fairly consistent style that never changes dramatically. "I like to make predictable clothes," said Adolfo after his show at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase this week. "I want the women to feel they are seeing an old friend, both the clothes and me."

And the women come, in droves, often wearing their favorite Adolfo of past seasons, to see their old friend and his user-friendly clothes, and to be measured for their new choices. (Last week at Saks, Adolfo sold more than $250,000 worth of clothes, many women buying an entire wardrobe for the season ahead.)

This time, however, there was a surprise. The knitted cardigan suits done in the manner of Chanel were still there. So were the knitted chemises, the short dinner dresses and the handsome gowns. But this season most of the daytime clothes and short dinner dresses barely grazed the knee. They were longer than what the European designers and many New York designers have shown for fall, but clearly shorter than some women in the audience would have preferred.

"He let me down. I thought he would come out for women who need to hide their legs," said one woman angrily after the fashion show lunch. ("Don't use my name," she whispered quickly, "I don't want people to think I'm unfashionable.")

Others were resigned to the change. "I was married in a short dress 22 years ago at age 22 and I guess I'll wear short again," said Carol Foley, who organized the luncheon that saluted the Meridian House Ball Committee. Foley has figured out a formula for the coming season. "Everything new I buy will be short. The old things I'll be wearing will be long."

But short skirts were hardly the only fresh idea from Adolfo for fall. Although his personal favorite color is black, there was a lot of bright color, including the short, high-waistline double-breasted coats with Persian lamb collars in bright red and green that opened the show, the red and black plaid suits, and the generous dose of red throughout, a tribute, he admits, to his client Nancy Reagan. ("Color makes clothes a little more modern at the moment," he says.)

Bows are a recurring theme with many designers this year, and with Adolfo as well. But he has always used them. "When I used to make hats, the bows, of course, were very important. And I guess you learn to make bows to put to the hats; now I put them to the clothes."

It wasn't the bows or the colors but the hems that provoked most of the conversation at the luncheon show. On some of the models the hems covered the knee, and Adolfo will make them that long, even inches longer, if his client insists. But the designer is a big believer in the short look for fall.

In fact, he's not sympathetic to women reluctant to wear short skirts because, well, their legs are not great or they are too short or too tall. "I think that is just complaining, because frankly, I think short skirts ... grazing the knee or just slightly above the knee or below the knee is very becoming, and it's very useful, very practical. And if a woman has good legs, there is no question that {short skirts} look marvelous. But if it's not a very good leg at all, I think when it's short it looks better than when it's long."

The soft-spoken, boyish-looking designer is adamant. "It is hard for people to understand, but frankly, if you really are open-minded, you notice that it may look better," said Adolfo. "Women with heavy legs don't hide anything in long skirts."

In the past, the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley, Jacqueline Onassis, Betsy Bloomingdale, Gloria Vanderbilt have all taken his cue on style and proportion. He has already seen from the orders in New York and Washington that women are ready for a change.

Adolfo first developed his best-dressed following as a millinery designer for Bergdorf Goodman. The Cuban-born designer learned to design hats at the house of Balenciaga when he was 17. He was introduced to Balenciaga by his aunt, Maria Lopez, who was a client of the house. "I always mention my aunt because she was more like my mother," says Adolfo. His aunt raised him after his mother died when he was born.

At that time, Maria Lopez was a well-known, elegant woman, frequently photographed in the French magazines. She often took Adolfo with her on shopping trips to Paris before World War II and after. He remembers particularly the opening of the house of Dior in 1947 when the New Look was introduced, and the shows at Chanel. "I knew when I saw Chanel it was exactly what I wanted to do one day."

Adolfo knows that critics say his designs are too close to Chanel's. "I think every designer and any artist and actually every creative person should always have someone that inspires them," he says quietly, his Cuban accent adding a lilt to his voice. "For me, Chanel was that inspiration. She made me see what I wanted to do with my career." He can't help but notice things in the paper, but he doesn't study each collection. "However, what I like is the vision of Chanel over many, many years."

Those women who loved his hats at Bergdorf's followed Adolfo to his East Side salon when he opened his own business in 1962 with the help of a $10,000 loan from designer Bill Blass. He won't say how much business his company generates -- "It is a pleasant, growing organization" -- but it is small when compared with other designers who spread their names on a variety of products. Adolfo has a successful menswear line that he styles, but he has had little success with other products. "I'm not very clever at that," he says.

Besides, he has little time. He is always designing, making little line drawings as notes to himself, always working in a white coat and pants. "I feel cool and fresh and change it every day. It makes me feel good," he says. He always personally sees customers who visit his New York salon and goes on the road to Saks stores twice a year to meet with his faithful followers. He used to take his two pugs, Alexander and Victoria, to work with him, but now they are old and better off at home, he says.

All of his clothes are made in New York, and every day he goes to his major factory in Long Island City "to be sure everything is coming the way I want it to." The knits are made on knitting machines he can use himself. In fact, he sometimes sits at a machine to develop textures and patterns. If pushed, he could make the clothes, working the knitting machines and then sewing all the parts together. "I could do it long before the machines were so computerized," he says proudly. "I can cut and sew and make clothes myself, which I enjoy very much." He's very proud of a blue blazer that he made for himself in his own workroom.

In his New York showroom is a black model, Pal Henry, whom Adolfo calls his muse. "My clothes look very well on her," he says. Adolfo has always used many black models, and the Saks Fifth Avenue show was no exception. "From the time I started to show my clothes I have always used black models," he explains. "I think the black model has a rather marvelous way to present herself. I like blond models and I like red hair models and all of that; however the black model to me is a necessity. Black models have a wonderful understanding of clothes, a feeling for clothes." All of the models he used in the show here were from the Washington area.

When his collection was shown at Saks last week, models wore darkly tinted hose, flats or high heels, and often carried chain-detailed bags in the fabric of their suits. But no hats. Though there has been a revival of the hat business, particularly the frivolous styles of Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld and others, Adolfo does not show hats with his clothes these days. "I feel that hats don't work now with my clothes. Perhaps they work with other designers' clothes, but with mine I think if I put hats with my clothes they look too overdone."

When he is not working, he reads to relax. At the moment he's reading "Crown of Thorns" by Stephane Groueff, the story of the reign of King Boris III of Bulgaria. Occasionally he goes to a quiet beach in Nassau. But none of that influences his collections. "I have never been inspired by museums, books or any of those things that I do for my own pleasure. I don't take things from there to my clothes," he says. His ideas come from conversations with his clients, such as Betsy Bloomingdale, who explain their needs and tell him what they would like to wear to a party or to a ball or somewhere. "That will inspire me," he says.