When the late, great Garfinckel's finally closed its dignified doors this past summer, it meant more than the death of a refined, decades-old retailer. The demise of Garf's -- as the store was affectionately called -- signified something much more cataclysmic: the disappearance of L vlast.

"When I heard over the radio back in July that Garfinckel's was closing its stores forever," Washingtonian Robert Kelley recalls, "I flew into a panic at the thought of a world without L vlast." That same fateful day, he left work early and drove (at 80 mph, he says) straight to Garf's at Montgomery Mall to stock up on L vlast. Kelley was not alone: Other crazed L vlast groupies had managed to beat him to the punch. All that was left was a single, precious quart-sized bottle. He grabbed it.

L vlast. A fragrant, ocean blue, liquid potion. A "cold water cleaner." Ah, but it is so much more. Call it a way of life. But before you do, spell it right: no "e's" and remember to pierce its second "letter" with an arrow pointing heavenward, as it does on the bottle. And whatever you do, do not confuse it with that ersatz "W"-word product (as in Woolite). Please.

True aficionados know all this, of course. They know, too, that L vlast isn't advertised anywhere, and that its popularity is based upon furtive word of Washingtonian mouth. And they know they can safely and effectively use it on everything from palomino ponies to silken unmentionables to poodles to makeup and hair brushes.

"Women are peculiar people," explains William Friedland. He's sort of old-fashioned, in a well-intentioned Strom Thurmond kind of way. He also is the "corporate president, founder, owner, chief cook and bottle washer" of Foremost Chemicals Inc., the company in St. Petersburg, Fla., that manufactures and internationally distributes L vlast. It was Friedland who invented the magical stuff a couple of decades ago. (Well, primarily him. Others were involved, he says, but it was mostly his idea.)

The elixir made it possible for garments such as swimsuits, bras and girdles to retain their snap after countless washings. Friedland says many others have tried to copy his formula, but none have succeeded.

Ask him to talk about national and international sales figures, and Friedland is taciturn. "It's hard to break down our records," he insists. "We're not sophisticated or computerized."

He will say that the demand for L vlast is intense in Washington, second only to the Midwest. But, "We're not in the mass market; we don't look for it."

Foremost's policy is to confine the distribution of L vlast to upscale retailers featuring washable fashions, specialty goods and/or fabric. In the Washington area, it is carried by Little Caledonia in Georgetown, and Shands and Fleming, near Dupont Circle. But Garfinckel's shoppers didn't know that, so they panicked. They checked out the back of the bottle to see who made the product, and where, and immediately descended upon 813-555-1212 information operators in the otherwise peaceable town of St. Pete just to reach someone, anyone, at Foremost Chemicals Inc.

About 100 or so reached the bemused Shirley Marshall. "I guess you could say that what was reflected most in all of the customers who called," she says, "was your basic desperation." Yes, she heard many tales of woe. But, that's part of her job. She's Friedland's administrative assistant and has been working for Foremost for a decade. Soon as people heard Garfinckel's was closing -- that would've been a few weeks into July -- "they started calling immediately," she says. "It was mostly working women ... It was a real crisis for them. It was thunderous. It was, 'Where am I going to get it?' and 'Oh my God, I'll never have it again!' "

Once they were assured L vlast would be available forever there was a gigantic sense of relief in the formerly forlorn. Marshall continues to receive frantic phone calls from old Garfinckel's customers, although they have begun tapering off.

Incidentally, if you dabble in courage, you even can try a L vlast bubble bath. Friedland discovered this novel idea when he received a thank-you letter from a woman who added L vlast to her husband's Saturday bath. "I was curious about that and ran her down by phone," he says. "Turns out that her husband's job involved installing insulation in automobiles. She put some L vlast in the bathwater and said it was the first time in 24 years she'd seen his skin."

Robert Kelley, who is not quite ready at this stage of his life to do the bubble-bath thing, prefers using the stuff to do his laundry and to clean his cats' brushes. He stocked up on his supply in a big way since he heard about Little Caledonia. "I have just enough to tide me over till the summer Olympics of 1992."