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Subject: Henry Racamier Dies at 90; Revitalized Louis Vuitton

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Date Posted: April 01, 2003 2:05:45 EDT

Henry Racamier, who married a descendant of Louis Vuitton and built a family-owned leather goods company into one of the world's largest luxury goods groups, died on Saturday while traveling in Sardinia. He was 90.

The cause was a heart attack, according to the Opéra National de Paris, which Mr. Racamier, a well-known patron of music and the arts, supported almost his entire life.

Mr. Racamier made a fortune in the steel industry before he was asked at age 65 by the family of his wife, Odile Vuitton, the great-granddaughter of Louis Vuitton, to run the family's leather goods business.

In 13 years, he expanded it through growth and acquisitions into a world-renowned, billion-dollar luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Yet in a bitter battle with the current chairman, Bernard Arnault, Mr. Racamier was ultimately stripped of power and ousted from the board.

Though toying with the idea of remaining in the luxury goods business, Mr. Racamier ultimately dedicated himself to his other passions, most notably music and sailing.

While running Vuitton, he started the yachting races that bear the company's name; as founder of the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Opera, Music and the Arts, he became a major benefactor of musicians and museums around the world.

Henry Marcel Racamier was born June 25, 1912, in Pont-de-Roide, in the Doubs region of mountainous eastern France, the son of an industrialist. After acquiring a business degree in Paris, in 1949 he founded Stinox, a small but highly profitable steel trading company. When his father-in-law, Gaston Vuitton, died in 1970, the family was divided about how to run Vuitton. Mr. Racamier, who retired from steel in 1977, was asked to take over.

Vuitton had been synonymous with prestige almost since it was founded in 1854 by Louis Vuitton, who was imperial layetier, or clothes packer, for Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III. For more than a century, Vuitton was magical. Yet when Mr. Racamier took over, the company appeared mired in the 19th century. Vuitton had just two stores, one in Paris and one in Nice, and had annual revenue of about $14 million.

Bringing management skills acquired in the steel business, Mr. Racamier modernized the way Vuitton made and marketed its leather goods; more important, he tapped the immense Asian market.

Yet success led to fear of outside takeover. So in 1987, after long and discreet discussions, Mr. Racamier announced the merger of Vuitton with Moët-Hennessy, the venerable Paris-based Champagne and Cognac producer, and renamed the combination LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The idea was that the combined group would be too large for a hostile raider. Instead, the siege came from within.

In 1988, Mr. Racamier invited a relatively unknown French businessman, Bernard Arnault, then 39, to invest in LVMH, hoping to gain him as an ally in a management struggle. But after joining LVMH, Mr. Arnault turned against Mr. Racamier and after a two-year battle for control ousted him from the board. By the time of his departure, LVMH had more than 130 stores worldwide and annual revenue of $1.2 billion; Asia accounted for almost 40 percent of that.

After leaving LVMH, Mr. Racamier used a family holding company, Orcofi, to join the French banking group Paribas and the French cosmetics giant L'Oréal in buying the Lanvin fashion house. Many thought he would try to build a new luxury group to rival LVMH.

Instead, Mr. Racamier turned to music and sailing.

Mr. Racamier is survived by his wife; and two daughters, Caroline Bentz and Laurence Fontaine.

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