Your Rock-Solid Case for Flying Business Class for Work

Imagine a corporate policy where the C-suite executive who only flies a couple of times a year rides in coach and the sales and engineering road warriors get the first-class and business-class tickets.

Some companies are starting to make changes in that direction to reduce what’s known as traveler friction—the burnout that saps productivity and leads to low morale and job turnover.


Hunting in Tanzania the Way Our Earliest Ancestors Did

Hunting in Tanzania the Way Our Earliest Ancestors Did
Illustration: DAVID DORAN

JUST AFTER DAWN, on the second day of searching for the Hadza hunters, we found them camped under a rock overhang. The tableau looked like a scene from the ancient human past. A few men and adolescent boys were sitting around a fire, cutting meat from a freshly skinned impala. Women and infants emerged from temporary huts made of leaves. Small yellow dogs, covered in bite wounds, trotted forward to sniff us.

This roaming band of Hadza hunter-gatherers, in northern Tanzania, was now accustomed to visits from small tour groups like ours—pale-faced strangers with hats, cameras and water bottles—but our motives remained mysterious to them. According to our guide, a dreadlocked entrepreneur from the neighboring Datoga tribe, the Hadza didn’t understand why we wanted to see such everyday sights as an early morning monkey hunt.

“Imagine if tourists were coming to your house and watching you go to the supermarket,” he said. “You would wonder what they were looking at.” The way in which we looked at the Hadza was shaped by what we’d heard about their DNA. Some of the earliest Homo sapiens evolved in this part of Africa, and the Hadza, according to some genetic researchers, are their direct descendants. The way they live, roaming the land, hunting and gathering, sheltering under rocks, is how our earliest ancestors existed 200,000 years ago.

The headman was a strikingly handsome, muscular man, wearing a beaded antelope hide tied over one shoulder, a pair of denim shorts and tire-tread sandals. He smiled, showing perfect teeth, and shook our hands gently. Then he passed me a bow decorated with baboon fur, and an arrow fletched with guinea fowl feathers. He pointed to a huge baobab tree about 30 yards away.

I drew back the bow with some difficulty. The tree must have been 15 feet wide, but I still managed to miss it. The teenage boys were incredulous. Our guide told us they had been shooting bows and arrows from the age of two and could drop small, fast birds out of the sky.

The baobab had short sticks jammed into its trunk, forming a perilous ladder that the Hadza climbed to raid beehives. They loved eating honey, and traded the surplus for metal arrowheads, metal knives, beads, sandals, clothes, tobacco and marijuana. Tour-group companies compensated them for receiving visitors like us, and they spent the money on the same things. The Hadza tourism industry has been criticized for compromising their cultural purity, but this small tribe faces much graver threats. It has lost 90% of its land in recent years, and cattle encroachment is starving out the wild animals on what’s left. This was one of the last bands still hunting and gathering all its food. They spoke softly among themselves in a click language—a linguistic isolate, unrelated to any living languages—although some of the men had learned enough Swahili to interact with the outside world.

The headman whistled for the dogs. This meant they were going after baboons, which upset a woman in our party. “Do you think I can control them?” said the guide gently. “Do you think if the dogs tree a baboon, the men are not going to kill it because of us? This is how they eat and feed their families.”

They set off walking at top speed across the dusty broken ground with a big red sun slanting through the acacia trees. The dogs started running, the hunters sprinted after them, and I struggled to keep up, ducking under branches, trying not to snag the baboon-furred bow on the thorns.

I struggled to keep up, trying not to snag the bow on the thorns.

The baboons escaped, after inflicting some fresh bite wounds on the dogs. Then the teenagers killed a couple of squirrels, and the headman spotted a bush baby—a small, cute, large-eye primate—in the top of a tree. He drew back his bow, and shot an arrow into its solar plexus. The animal tried to pull out the arrow with one hand while clinging to a branch with the other. Another arrow pierced it, and five more in quick succession. It fell down through the branches, still alive, and the headman dashed its head against a rock.

A man spun an arrow shaft on a flat piece of wood, sliding his palms back and forth. A thin coil of smoke appeared, then a tiny glowing coal nestled in dung. The man blew the coal into flame, built a fire, and laid the bush baby and the squirrels on top of it. When the fur was blackened, he snatched the carcasses off, sliced them down the middle, threw the guts to the dogs, and put them back on the fire. When the bush baby was medium-rare, the cook tore off one of its arms and handed it to me. It seemed rude, and somehow inhuman, to refuse. This was how we lived for the vast majority of our history. The bush baby was surprisingly tasty, not unlike the dark meat on a scrawny chicken, or so I thought while I was eating it. Three hours later, there was a rank, stubborn, gamy taste in my mouth, and no amount of beer-rinsing or tooth-brushing would get rid of it.

Hunting in Tanzania the Way Our Earliest Ancestors Did

More in Off Duty Travel

Danny Meyer Wants to Help You Get Your Favorite Meal

New York restaurateur and Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer is moving into the e-commerce business.

Enlightened Hospitality Investments LP, the $220 million private-equity fund that Mr. Meyer helped start, has invested $15 million in Goldbelly, a New York-based company that specializes in shipping favorite food items from restaurants, bakeries and other purveyors.


‘Mastering the Market Cycle’ Review: The Dangers of Optimism

Amid so much purportedly expert investment advice, it is worth asking who the experts themselves listen to. One answer, undoubtedly, is Howard Marks, among the world’s most successful investment managers as well as an intellectual leader of the profession. His client memos are widely distributed among investment professionals. “When I see memos from Howard Marks in my mail,” Warren Buffett has said, “they’re the first thing I open and read. I always learn something.”

In 2011 Mr. Marks published “The Most Important Thing,”…

High-Octane Cool

Steve McQueen in Peter Yates’s ‘Bullitt’ (1968)
Steve McQueen in Peter Yates’s ‘Bullitt’ (1968) Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Fifty years ago this month, “Bullitt” opened in the U.S. and became one of the most financially successful thrillers of all time, costing a mere $5.5 million and reaping a gross of $42.3 million—more than $300 million today—at the domestic box office. This story of a San Francisco detective on the trail of ruthless hit men marked the apotheosis of Steve McQueen as an action star. In celebration of the anniversary, “Bullitt” is running in selected theaters across the U.S. this Tuesday.

Still relishing his one and only Oscar nomination, for his role in “The Sand Pebbles,” and just four months after appearing in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” McQueen enjoyed a position of immense power. His company, Solar Productions, controlled “Bullitt” from start to finish, despite the film’s being financed by Warner Brothers/Seven Arts. McQueen himself selected British director Peter Yates, given his skill at staging the car chase in “Robbery” the previous year. And it was McQueen who spent interminable preparatory sessions at a track north of San Francisco, racing alongside and against Bill Hickman, a brilliant stunt driver whose Magnum Dodge Charger 440 sought to outrun police lieutenant Frank Bullitt’s Ford Mustang 390 GT in the now legendary pursuit through San Francisco. The 10-minute sequence took three weeks to record, with eight cameras involved (one operated by director Yates, hidden inside McQueen’s Mustang).

What distinguished McQueen from other action stars before and since? His idol was Humphrey Bogart, but such major stars traditionally were forbidden from performing risky stunts. McQueen, however, almost relished putting himself in harm’s way. Warners was appalled by the prospect of a live car chase in heavily populated San Francisco and by the scene when McQueen’s detective throws himself beneath the wheels of a taxiing Boeing 747 at San Francisco International Airport. Only Jackie Chan and, more recently, Tom Cruise have inherited this flair and sangfroid.

Steve McQueen in ‘Bullitt’ (1968)
Steve McQueen in ‘Bullitt’ (1968) Photo: Everett Collection

His contemporary Clint Eastwood (both born in 1930) was as laconic as McQueen, without exuding quite the same charismatic appeal to young and old alike. Then came the generation of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, each trumpeting the sex appeal of a muscular physique. Today actors like Tom Hardy and Dwayne Johnson seek to fill the shoes of a McQueen, who had suffered a brutal death from cancer at just 50 years of age.

You always felt that McQueen was the real deal, a rebel of flesh and blood with the carefree courage of an auto racer and the rumpled tenderness of a loner who had survived reform school and run away to join the merchant navy. “I’m not an actor, I’m a reactor,” he told Yates during the filming of “Bullitt,” and yet his early training at the Actors Studio nurtured some of his most beguiling traits—the defiant gaze that could change in an instant to a clown’s split grin, or his habit of looking down as he listens and then raising his blue-eyed glare like a searchlight to quell even such a suave adversary as Edward G. Robinson in “The Cincinnati Kid.”

McQueen’s talent as a driver onscreen also set him apart from all save perhaps the older Paul Newman. McQueen could outrun the Nazis on a motorcycle in “The Great Escape,” and he could drive a Porsche 917 alongside Jacky Ickx and Jo Siffert for the 24-hour race in “Le Mans.” He could ride a horse with aplomb and draw a six-gun as fast as any cowboy star (notably in “Nevada Smith” and “The Magnificent Seven”).

A scene from ‘Bullitt’; the film, directed by Peter Yates, still has wheels, thanks to its star’s charisma and the snarling vigor of its car chase.
A scene from ‘Bullitt’; the film, directed by Peter Yates, still has wheels, thanks to its star’s charisma and the snarling vigor of its car chase. Photo: Everett Collection

“Bullitt” was made in 1968, yet far from Vietnam and even from the spirit of nearby Haight-Ashbury. It may seem no more than an above-average gangster movie, but its iconic status continues to resonate today due in part to the snarling vigor of that car chase and in even larger measure to the abiding sense of a Steve McQueen at the top of his game, committed to adding a razor-sharp realism to every sequence. The action features numerous city landmarks, from San Francisco General Hospital to Grace Cathedral and the Mark Hopkins Hotel. “Bullitt” remains a benchmark in the crime-movie genre, and influenced such future classics as “The French Connection,” “Heat,” and especially the Jason Bourne franchise.

In “Bullitt” McQueen found himself on the side of justice for once, but not quite of the law, refusing to kowtow to ruthless superiors like Robert Vaughn’s district attorney. He remained, until the very end of his career, the outsider, as exemplified by “Junior Bonner,” “Tom Horn” and “The Hunter.” He appeared casual, even shy, but never self-effacing; and when the chips were, literally, down in a film like “The Cincinnati Kid,” McQueen’s nerve never faltered. He lived, like the characters he often played, with a ferocious desire for liberty that no other action star could match and to which even today’s Bond, Daniel Craig, can only aspire. And in “Bullitt” he was the quintessence of cool.

Mr. Cowie has written numerous books on filmmakers, including Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Francis Ford Coppola.

Has Fashion’s Licensing of Art Gone Too Far?

GRATEFUL DEAD CUFFLINKS. Andy Warhol socks. Jean-Michel Basquiat T-shirts. Lately my email inbox brims with press releases from fashion companies pitching these items. These are not, of course, the handiwork of the artists themselves (R.I.P. Jerry, Andy and Jean-Michel) but the result of licensing partnerships struck between a brand (Tateosian, Happy Socks and Diamond Supply Co., respectively) and an estate, foundation or company.

These types of deals have long been negotiated for mass merchandise, often kid’s items emblazoned…

How CEO Remo Ruffini Is Reinventing Moncler for a Faster Fashion World

ITALIAN STYLE Remo Ruffini in his home in Como, Italy. He is forgoing seasonal presentations to bring customers an array of Moncler products in a project dubbed the Genius Building. “It’s a new way to look at fashion,” says Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, one of the designers collaborating with Moncler.
ITALIAN STYLE Remo Ruffini in his home in Como, Italy. He is forgoing seasonal presentations to bring customers an array of Moncler products in a project dubbed the Genius Building. “It’s a new way to look at fashion,” says Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, one of the designers collaborating with Moncler. Photo: Salva López for WSJ. Magazine

FROM REMO RUFFINI’S magnificent terrace on Lake Como, lined this summer day with pots of white gardenias, you can almost see the house across the water where he grew up. It’s only a few miles from here, but in its way, Ruffini’s journey traces the history of fashion. His grandfather owned a fabric mill, which is what this region of northern Italy is known for. His father shifted the family business into garments and later had success in the U.S. with disco shirts.

As a young man, Ruffini followed the prevailing winds to America. The world was getting smaller, and Italians were looking for something new. He ended up founding his own brand, which riffed on American preppy style.

And then Ruffini hit the zeitgeist jackpot: In 2013, he bought a failing French sportswear brand that produced a functional staple—the puffy down winter jacket—just when people began spending their luxury bucks on casual clothing. The brand is Moncler, which became the first company to put puffy down jackets on the fashion runway and sell them for a fortune. In short order Moncler made Ruffini a billionaire.

A sculpture-filled dining area, all designed by the firm Gilles & Boissier.
A sculpture-filled dining area, all designed by the firm Gilles & Boissier. Photo: Salva López for WSJ. Magazine

Ruffini is now on the cusp of the next phase: Three years ago, he looked out into the future and determined that fashion just couldn’t keep going the way it had been. The mechanics of it, with the whole enterprise oriented around the seasons, had gotten creaky and would get progressively creakier. Shoppers with Instagram attention spans—in other words, everybody representing the future of fashion—were already bored stiff.

Ruffini, 57, is hardly the only executive to notice this. The fashion landscape today is littered with quickie collaborations, dead-of-night “drops” and jack-in-the-box pop-up stores. Anything to create cheap buzz without dismantling the seasonal engine of fashion. Ruffini has gone much further. He is betting on a different way of operating, in which designers and their ephemeral collections come and go in frantic rotation with scarcely a pause between to catch a breath. It makes the head spin.

A frescoed hallway.
A frescoed hallway. Photo: Salva López for WSJ. Magazine

“The client wants to see something new every day,” says Ruffini. “Every day they open Instagram and they want to see what’s up with Moncler, with Vuitton, with Gucci. They’re not going to wait six months to see what’s going on. That means I need a new story every month at least to give news to my customer. So I said, Why don’t we link the whole business to this attitude?”

Ruffini calls this new Moncler organization, somewhat confusingly, the Genius Building. The metaphor he used to describe it was the Guggenheim Museum, with its side rooms branching off from a central spiral ramp. In this case, Moncler is the building and the “genius” designers are the temporary tenants—there are currently eight, but the roster will change constantly.

The Genius Building kicked off in earnest in June. First up was a collaboration with a Japanese streetwear brand called Fragment Design and its avatar, Hiroshi Fujiwara, whom Moncler describes as “a cultural fomenter.” In August, English designer Craig Green served up spiky spacesuits that seemed unlikely to be worn by anyone but the most committed attention seekers, which is fine with Green—and Ruffini. (“Remo just wants you to do what you want to do,” says Green.) In all, Moncler scheduled 10 different product drops between June and the end of 2018, ranging from workaday puffers that account for the bulk of Moncler’s sales to quirkier collections created for their blinding viral moment. In September, Moncler showed five more collections due out next year, and this month, the brand is opening pop-up stores in New York City and Tokyo, where the Genius collections will be available for three months.

COMO OVER The pool overlooking Lake Como at Ruffini’s house.
COMO OVER The pool overlooking Lake Como at Ruffini’s house. Photo: Salva López for WSJ. Magazine

“When Remo first told me about his idea, I was fascinated. It’s a new way to look at fashion,” says Pierpaolo Piccioli, whose day job is creative director of Valentino. Piccioli drew on religious imagery from his boyhood—not normally the way you’d envision a down jacket, but Ruffini’s only instruction to his “geniuses” was to think of it like a blank canvas with feathers. “He left everything up to me. It was a brave act,” says Piccioli. “Moncler is not a fashion brand like Valentino. You can’t interpret it if you have nothing to say.”

There was no commercial pressure on Ruffini to take this step. When he conceived the idea, the sky above Moncler was as cloudless as the one in Como. “You have to have serious guts to rip the whole thing up when you’re on top,” says Etienne Russo, who has designed Moncler’s fashion shows for the past 10 years. “Business was so good, and then he comes in and says, ‘I want to change the whole supply chain’—that’s amazing!”

At first glance, Ruffini doesn’t strike you as a very disruptive sort of person. He has a friendly, bearded face that betrays little of what’s going on behind it. He dresses simply but impeccably; if he’s got a uniform, it’s what he’s wearing on this summer day: blue blazer, always double-breasted and always unbuttoned, gray slacks and black loafers. These are the months when Italian men trade their winter hose for ankle socks, and Ruffini does the same.

A 2016 show at New York’s Lincoln Center.
A 2016 show at New York’s Lincoln Center. Photo: Courtesy of Moncler

He earned his advanced degree around the family dinner table. “As I started growing up, every day I listened about clothing, about fabrics, about fashion,” recalls Ruffini. In the ’70s, business success took Ruffini’s father, Gianfranco, to the U.S., where his groovy Nik Nik brand was flourishing. “He never came back,” says Ruffini, whose mother, Enrica, had her own clothing business, in Italy.

Eventually, Ruffini followed his father to New York, but neither a stint with the company nor a stint in college did much for him. What launched him in life was a trip up the East Coast in a rented car. “I loved it,” says Ruffini. “When I understood the style, I said this is going to be big in Europe, because they like traditional things. I came back in August 1984, and in September I founded my company, which I called New England. It was a twist on the classic Brooks Brothers look—buttoned-down shirts, for instance, but with a flower print. I didn’t know anything about how to run a company, but I learned from my mistakes.”

A jacket from The Yellow collection, at the pop-up Genius stores this month.
A jacket from The Yellow collection, at the pop-up Genius stores this month. Photo: Courtesy of Moncler

In 1987, Ruffini sold part of his stake to a partner. That’s when he bought the Como house, or houses, really, because they came as a set of four former government buildings built in the 19th century (his sons, Pietro, 29, and Romeo, 26, each have one, and Ruffini and his wife, Francesca, use the others). It’s a spread that looks like a brick-and-mortar version of Ruffini himself: The houses are classic white buildings with dark trim, the pool has a simple slate border, and the paths leading down to the boathouse contain the perfect number of pebbles, as if they were allocated by an algorithm. Ruffini has an apartment in Milan for when he works late, but he much prefers to drive an hour back to the lake.

By the late ’90s, Ruffini and his partner were on the outs, so he sold his remaining interest and started looking for an existing brand to buy. “I said to myself that it could be interesting to work with something that had strong roots, and then try to be more innovative, to develop the idea but to remain consistent.”

This, in a nutshell, is what he has done with Moncler. The brand was created by two French mountaineers in 1952 and named for the tiny Alpine village of Monestier-de-Clermont, near Grenoble. They made Moncler for outdoorsmen like themselves. Ski god Jean-Claude Killy and the rest of the French team wore the brand at the 1968 Olympics. Ruffini even had a Moncler jacket himself as a teenager. “It was very good at 6:30 in the morning on the motorcycle to school in Como,” recalls Ruffini, “but it was very heavy—over one kilogram.”

An installation view of the new 2 Moncler 1952 collection.
An installation view of the new 2 Moncler 1952 collection. Photo: Courtesy of Moncler

When Ruffini bought the company years later, it had fallen out of style and was going out of business. He got it for a song. “The first and most important thing I did was go down to the archives. I remember going into a room with, like, 500 pieces—yellow, pink, blue,” says Ruffini. These were the days when cool meant black. “We presented 20 jackets—super colorful, super bright, super shiny, with the old logo from the ’50s. The idea was to develop something disruptive for the market—that was the key. They sold out in minutes.”

It’s not just that Ruffini doesn’t seem to mind operating outside his comfort zone; he doesn’t even appear to have one. First he transformed Moncler from a wholesaler to a retailer, opening a network of Moncler stores (there are currently 209, plus 65 boutiques in multibrand stores). “It’s very tricky to change the whole culture. And it was not my culture. When I founded my first company, you make the product, you make the sale to the store, and your job is finished. Now you have to think about your windows, the people in your stores—it’s a second job.”

He hired fashion designers to put a creative stamp on what for decades had been a shapeless nylon sack. First came Junya Watanabe and Nicolas Ghesquière. Later, Moncler split men’s and women’s collections under Thom Brown and Giambattista Valli. With designers came fashion shows, but the routine stroll up and back on a catwalk clearly wasn’t going to cut it. Even a designer down jacket with silk fabric and a fur collar still looks like a down jacket. So Ruffini bet big on extravaganzas where the down jackets themselves were secondary.

A 2011 show in Grand Central Station.
A 2011 show in Grand Central Station. Photo: Courtesy of Moncler

In 2010, he positioned 100 young men and women on scaffolding at New York’s Chelsea Piers and had them stand in the cold for two hours while editors sipped hot chocolate. He convened a 363-person flash mob in Grand Central station. He sent 180 ice skaters around the Wollman Rink in Central Park. “He told me, ‘I don’t want a normal fashion show—I’m after another vision, a different way of showing. I’m not selling a collection, I’m selling an attitude,’ ” says Etienne Russo, who staged those shows. “You couldn’t really see the clothes, but this was for the longer term—for the gossip, for the word of mouth, for the Instagram feeds.”

Ruffini took Moncler public in 2013. He had gone through several private equity partners by then, and he says he was sick of looking for new ones every few years. The public offering instantly boosted his visibility and his bank account. The stock opened at a price that valued Moncler at around $3.5 billion, but such was the clamor for shares that the company ended the day worth just over $5 billion, a 47 percent jump in an afternoon. Ruffini’s 32 percent stake made him an “overnight billionaire” in the next day’s headlines.

It’s been pretty much straight up since then. Revenues grew from $800 million in 2013 to $1.43 billion in 2017. Profits did even better, rising from $104.6 million to $299 million. Ruffini’s stake is down to 26 percent today, but Moncler stock has more than doubled, making his smaller stake of the now-$11.5 billion company worth almost $2.7 billion.

A 1952 poster.
A 1952 poster. Photo: Courtesy of Moncler

That performance is all the more impressive considering that Moncler really sells only one thing, and it’s a thing most people need only one of, and then only in certain cold places at certain very cold times. Ruffini has successfully denied that reality, and he keeps denying it. Earlier this year, Moncler opened a store in sweltering Dubai. “The best market for luxury today is travelers. People don’t want to buy anymore where they live,” says Ruffini.

Observers keep waiting for reality to catch up to Moncler. A year ago, Luca Solca, the luxury goods analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, downgraded Moncler’s stock to underperform. “It would be naive to expect any brand to sustain growth above the market average forever,” Solca wrote in an analyst note in May 2017. In the first half of 2018, Moncler announced revenue of $575 million, 27 percent above the same period in 2017 at constant exchange rates. Net income was up 47 percent to $71.7 million. “We were wrong. We thought the stock would be quiet, but then it wasn’t,” says Solca, who subsequently raised the rating. “It’s still a one-trick pony, but Ruffini has built a great machine.”

An image from the Pierpaolo Piccioli collaboration.
An image from the Pierpaolo Piccioli collaboration. Photo: Suzanne Jongmans

I saw what that pony could do on a tour through Moncler’s wholesale showroom in Milan. The racks were lined with hundreds of down jackets, no two of them alike, and almost none of them bearing much resemblance to the bread-and-butter puffer Ruffini wore to school (they also weigh about a tenth as much). Some had nylon panels stitched in intricate geometric patterns. Some had leather or camouflage outer shells. One had the motto “From Down Jacket” printed on it, just so you don’t lose sight of where Moncler is coming from. A rose-colored creation with a matching faux-fur collar is apparently a big seller, but it’s obviously not meant for me (Moncler’s sales are split evenly between men and women).

It’s enough to make anyone nostalgic for the days when a fashion house had that quaint thing called a look. “In some ways, I kind of miss the days of a Christian Dior , ” says Craig Green. “But people just don’t want to keep seeing the same thing. It really shifts your head space to something you’re not used to.”

An image from the 1970 Moncler catalog.
An image from the 1970 Moncler catalog. Photo: Courtesy of Moncler

If this reminds you of the sneaker business with its bewildering merry-go-round of short-lived styles, well, Ruffini doesn’t exactly discourage the comparison. “The young generation may buy the $90 Adidas, but they dream of getting the Pharrell collaboration for $700. This is the game at the moment, and it works.”

Of course, when you’re surfing the zeitgeist, you’ve got to make sure you don’t miss the next wave. When Ruffini goes to Tokyo, perhaps three times a year, there’s a particular coffee shop in Shibuya where he likes to sit for several hours. “It’s very important to do nothing,” says Ruffini. “You see thousands of people walking across the street, and you notice the differences. Maybe the Genius Building is good for today, maybe it can last three years, maybe it can last 10 years. You must be ready to make something new.”

More from WSJ. Magazine

The Team That Digs Deeper to Have Fun

How do you climb to the top of a crowded college sports landscape? Locker room dance parties and Ultimate Frisbee games are part of the winning formula for the University of Nebraska’s women’s volleyball team.

“In the off-season, building camaraderie is just as important as building strength,” says Mikaela Foecke, a senior and co-captain. “Because you rely heavily on your teammates, it’s important to get along on and off the court.”

In London, Collectors Get Fired Up for Ceramics

One of Picasso’s vases. Ceramics were in focus at several auctions in London, as well as the art fair Frieze.
One of Picasso’s vases. Ceramics were in focus at several auctions in London, as well as the art fair Frieze. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.

Asian collectors have long prized porcelain vases as much as paintings, but until recently, art lovers elsewhere largely treated ceramics like a second-class craft. Now, the global art market is trying to elevate clay art into the realm of the blue chip.

Christie’s and Phillips for the first time added stand-alone auctions of 20th-century and contemporary ceramics to their high-profile set of evening sales in London with examples by artists like Paul Gauguin, Lucio Fontana and Thomas Schütte. All but three of the 36 pieces in Christie’s $4 million “Un/Breakable” sale on Tuesday found buyers.

Across town at the art fair Frieze London, which overlapped with the week’s auctions, at least half a dozen galleries also offered ceramic works in their booths, including Robert Arneson’s 1983 bust of his wife Sandra Shannonhouse, “Woman in Gold,” at Venus Over Manhattan’s booth. It was priced at $650,000.

Paul Gauguin, ‘Vase porte-bouquet "Atahualpa"’
Paul Gauguin, ‘Vase porte-bouquet “Atahualpa”’ Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.

Another highlight: Spanish-Egyptian artist Teresa Solar Abboud’s 2018 “Everything Is OK,” a salmon-colored column of lumpen ceramic bowls that evoke an intestinal tract, priced for around $5,800. As of Friday afternoon, Ms. Solar Abboud’s piece was still available, and Venus Over Manhattan declined to divulge the status of Mr. Arneson’s piece. The fair concludes Sunday.

Elsewhere this season, several tastemaker galleries and museums are also playing up pottery. Gagosian’s gallery in Geneva, Switzerland, has a “Fire and Clay” show running until Dec. 15 that includes potters Shio Kusaka, who is based in Los Angeles, and Ron Nagle, who is from San Francisco. In New York, the Museum of Arts and Design just opened an exhibit of apocalyptic ceramics by Los Angeles’s Sterling Ruby. It runs through March.

Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter Marina Picassogave the contemporary ceramics market a jolt three years ago when she enlisted Sotheby’s to sell off a portion of her inherited trove of the artist’s playful pottery. Collectors over the course of three sales bought every ceramic piece, in some cases paying six-figure sums that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. “Jurassic Park” actor Richard Attenborough’s estate sale of Picasso ceramics at Christie’s two years ago stoked a similar buy-it-all frenzy, with a Picasso vase selling for $909,407.

The canny push from auction houses also comes at a time when collector confidence remains highest in the middle of the market where pieces typically sell for between $500,000 to $5 million as opposed to the trophy top of the market where pieces can top $100 million, according to the auction-tracking firm ArtTactic’s Contemporary Art Market Confidence Report issued Tuesday.

Ai Weiwei’s ‘He Xie,’ incorporating porcelain sunflower seeds and river crabs, sold for $793,000 on Friday.
Ai Weiwei’s ‘He Xie,’ incorporating porcelain sunflower seeds and river crabs, sold for $793,000 on Friday. Photo: Phillips

Trophies are still selling at Sotheby’s, though: On Friday, its sale of part of New Jersey management consultant David Teiger’s estate included a $12.4 million Jenny Saville, “Propped,” that reset the record for a living female artist at auction.

The mood has nudged collectors to bolster ceramic pieces for dozens of artists like Peter Voulkos, whose 1958 stoneware abstract, “Rondena,” sold at Phillips last December for $915,000, over its $500,000 high estimate. The sale also established a new auction high bar for a 20th-century ceramic made by a U.S. artist.

That price still pales in comparison with the $38 million paid for a Chinese ceramic at auction—Sotheby’s sold a Northern Song-era vessel for washing paintbrushes—but the overall recalibration could expand the collector base. Watch for prices to rise for modern ceramists like George Ohr—the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi”—as well as postwar potters Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. Their works have long been funneled into decorative-art sales alongside lamps and sofas, rather than with paintings, sculptures and other fine art, but Christie’s expert Leonie Mir said such designations are blurring because younger contemporary collectors don’t sift or rank artworks strictly by medium anymore.

Neither do contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei, who incorporates all sorts of materials in his work. Among his recent installations: Room-size piles of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds and river crabs.

“There’s a lot of cross-pollination going on,” said Meaghan Roddy, a senior international specialist at Phillips, who sold the river crabs, or “He Xie,” for $793,000 on Friday.

Here’s a look at five other artists from Frieze Week who got creative with clay.

Picasso’s ‘Grand vase aux femmes voilées’ (A.R. 116)
Picasso’s ‘Grand vase aux femmes voilées’ (A.R. 116) Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.
Pablo Picasso

Picasso started making earthenware plates and bowls in the 1940s as a breezy summer pastime, but he stuck with it for the rest of his life—eventually making more than 600 types of pieces, often shaped like animals or adorned with images of mythological characters. On Tuesday, Christie’s top lot was a 1950 terra-cotta “Large Vase With Veiled Women” that sold for $526,175, slightly over its $520,000 low estimate. But there are signs that collectors are starting to flip his pottery like they do his paintings: Christie’s also sold his 1950 “Tripod (A.R. 125)” vase depicting his mistress, Françoise Gilot, for $195,000—but the seller paid Sotheby’s $272,060 for it only two years ago.

Fausto Melotti, ‘I gessetti’ (1959)
Fausto Melotti, ‘I gessetti’ (1959) Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.
Fausto Melotti

Fausto Melotti, an art-student pal of Lucio Fontana, initially gained fame in the 1930s for making wiry, geometric sculptures, but after his Milan studio was destroyed during World War II, he turned in grief to terra-cotta. He started making clay scenes with tiny figures often separated as if living on separate floors. He hinted at stories with this series of puppet-theater works, said Ms. Mir of Christie’s, adding, “There’s a domesticity to them, but the figures are isolated.” Today, Melotti’s quivering metal sculptures have sold for as much as $665,000, but Christie’s reset his clay record Tuesday by selling 1959’s “The Chalks,” for $416,975.

‘Overgrown’ by Kathy Butterly
‘Overgrown’ by Kathy Butterly Photo: Phillips
Kathy Butterly

New York artist Kathy Butterly has spent the past couple of decades crumbling clay into cheery, misfit forms that appear to topple, yet don’t. She has used nail polish as a glaze, sometimes firing her pieces dozens of times and risking destruction in the process, according to her dealer James Cohan, who has a solo show of her work, “Thought Presence,” up through Oct. 20 in New York. On Friday in London, Phillips’s $3.3 million sale included her 7-inch piece, “Overgrown,” that sold for $21,160. It was priced to sell for up to $20,000.

Betty Woodman’s ‘Balustrade Relief Vase 07-4’ (2007)
Betty Woodman’s ‘Balustrade Relief Vase 07-4’ (2007) Photo: Phillips
Betty Woodman

Betty Woodman, who died earlier this year, studied pottery in New York in the late 1940s, but after that she spent time in Tuscany, where she gained a reputation for creating vases that looked like they’d been deconstructed and pinned to the wall. “She’s creating three-dimensional works in a 2-D way,” Ms. Roddy of Phillips said. In 2006, Woodman was the first living ceramist to get a retrospective of her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and since then her market has started to tick upward. On Friday, Phillips sold her 2007 “Balustrade Relief Vase 07-4” for $61,850, tripling its high estimate.

Yeesookyung, ‘Translated Vase_2016 TVJ 2’ (2016)
Yeesookyung, ‘Translated Vase_2016 TVJ 2’ (2016) Photo: Gallery Hyundai

Since 2002, Seoul-based artist Yeesookyung has gathered potsherds of traditional Korean ceramics broken by manufacturers because they have flaws. She takes the pieces and builds them into new, bulbous shapes using an ancient technique where 24-karat gold leaf is used as a binding seam. Her “Translated Vases,” as she calls them, have since been collected by museums, displayed in last year’s Venice Biennale and sold at auction for as much as $33,231. During the VIP day for Frieze on Wednesday, Gallery Hyundai sold her 2016 “Translated Vase_2016 TVJ 2” for $26,000.

Write to Kelly Crow at