This little Italian sports eyewear firm got a lot of visibility at last July's highly publicized Tour de France bicycle race, where 32 percent of the participants and 6 high-level teams were wearing its glasses. While Oakley celebrated Lance Amstrong's 5th victory in the race, Rudy Project is now planning a whole new marketing campaign around Jan Ullrich, who came in second after two years of absence from any major competitions for various reasons.

Rudy Project has been sponsoring the controversial German champion since 1996, when he was not yet famous. Ullrich's first victory in the 1997 Tour de France gave the brand immediately the leadership in the German bike eyewear market. It stopped endorsing him during the last 3 years but signed again last June a new 2-year deal with Ullrich as well as his new Bianchi Team.

During the latest French race, Ullrich wore a special new model of Rudy Project eyewear, called Ketyum, which will be delivered to the trade at the end of October. It uses a special compound of magnesium, titanium, silicium and aluminum, developed for high-altitude flying, which combines lightness, strength and elasticity. Like many other recent models launched by Rudy Project, it can be fitted with prescription lenses.

Innovation is probably the main component of Rudy Project's development strategy, which is still steered by Rudy Barbizza, the 66-year-old sports eyewear guru who founded the company in 1985. Hs son Cristiano took over the management 5 years ago, running a small team of 25 people including 6 designers of various nationalities. They work on new materials and new products all the time, in cooperation with athletes around the world who provide feedback and new ideas.

In recent years, the range of sports activities covered by Rudy Project has been broadened to include ski and snowboarding, running and triathlon, inline skating, kayaking and a variety of other disciplines including golf, where the first collection has launched this summer. It has a deal as official supplier of the Australian Golf Open for the 4 years, starting in 2003.

However, unlike some other sports eyewear and sunglass brands, Rudy Project wants to be perceived everywhere as a specialized niche brand, offering a lot of merchandising support and good customer service. Therefore, it has been shunning lately big generalist trade fairs like MIDO, SILMO or ISPO, preferring instead to show in specialized fairs like Eurobike in Germany, last week's EICMA in Milan or the PGA golf show in Florida. It has been exhibiting also in some regional optical fairs like Vision Expo in New York, the Optafair in Birmingham or IOFT in Tokyo.

The company is still relatively small by world standards, with annual sales of only about €15 million, but it has been expanding strongly internationally under the direction of Rudy Project's super-active export manager, Claudio Fantin. Last year, sales outside Italy grew by 42 percent to represent 70 percent of the total turnover, but the growth rate is likely to slow down to about 6 percent this year. The largest foreign markets are the USA, Japan, Australia and Germany.

Rudy Project recently opened a permanent showroom in Munich's M,O,C, and signed up a Korean distributor. A few months ago, Rudy Project opened its first Indonesian single-brand store in Jakarta through its local distributor, following the example of the Philippines where the brand has no less than 15 stores. More Rudy Project stores should be opened in Malaysia and elsewhere in the near future.