NEW YORK -- When Robert Cankes, president and chief executive officer of Christian Dior Perfumes, was presented with the Beautiful Apple award by the March of Dimes Monday night, he said the turnout was particularly impressive considering the competition for people's attention.

"It was tough, with the opening day for the Yankees and the finals for the NCAA tonight, but being here tonight beat both of them," he told the crowd of 870 at the Beauty Ball in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria.

Cankes's reference to some of the rituals of spring -- baseball and March Madness -- was not lost on the assembled executives, many of whom were thrilled to see the end of winter.

Leonard Lauder, president and ceo of the Estee Lauder Cos., said he is going into the Mother's Day and Father's Day seasons with a positive frame of mind.

While conceding that "February was a bad month," Lauder asserted that business was "fabulous" in March.

"What I don't know is if the unease of the stock market is going to have a funny effect on the marketplace," he said.

Dan Brestle, president of Clinique USA, agreed that January and February were soft but said, "We came back strong in March, with 15 percent gains, mainly due to better weather."

Brestle, who said that Clinique will finish its fiscal year in June with a 12 percent sales increase, noted, "There was a lot of pent-up demand since people stayed in so much during the tough winter."

Derrick Luppino, vice president of cosmetics at Hecht's, said his business is running ahead of the store's, with men's fragrances showing particular strength. He cited Ralph Lauren's Polo Sport and Paco Rabanne's XS as "very strong."

Some other manufacturers also noted an improvement.

"Business picked up well in March," said Neil Katz, president of Liz Claiborne Cosmetics. "April looks very strong. We should be on plan for the first half. We believe our program for May and June is powerful."

Claiborne has become more promotional, Katz said, noting that the company is now running its first gift-with-purchase promotion for Vivid, the women's fragrance that was launched last fall.Katz said his strategy is to maintain volume levels of the existing brands while adding sales from Vivid. Larry Aiken, president and ceo of Sanofi Beaute, added, "We have hopeful expectations that this should be a good Mother's Day. We will be offering lots of value-oriented sets and one purchase-with-purchase promotion per brand."

Irwin Zazulia, president and ceo of the Hecht Co., was awarded the Service to Humanity award.

Although the attendance was slightly under last year's 920, the bottom line remained firm. This year's event generated a record $1.08 million, compared with last year's $1.01 million.

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