The cause of death was glioblastoma, which was diagnosed in March, according to his husband, Robert Wallace.
Witkowski worked in the men’s industry for more than a quarter-century, holding stints at Barneys New York, Merona, Jeffrey Banks, Polo Jeans, DKNY, Nautica and John Varvatos. He spent two tours of duty with Michael Kors, most recently as president of the company’s men’s division.
Ironically, a dozen of Witkowski’s best industry friends met for dinner on Sunday night in hopes of connecting with him one last time. Attendees included Varvatos, Banks and Mindy Grossman, now chief executive officer of Weight Watchers.
“We knew Don was in the last stages of life,” Banks said, “and we thought if we could all get together for dinner, we could use an iPad to tell him how much we loved him.”
Unfortunately, Witkowski was too ill to participate, Banks said. “So we all got together to grieve and tell stories about Don. It was quite wonderful — we laughed and we cried, but we celebrated him.”
Banks said he met Witkowski in the Eighties when he was designing Merona and when he launched his own brand in 1982, he hired him to head merchandising for sportswear and dress furnishings. He took on the women’s division in 1984 before moving on to Calvin Klein and then Nautica, Banks said.
“He was a terrific merchandiser, but more than that, he was smart, funny, engaging and everyone, from the factory workers to the fabric manufacturers, were so fond of him. He was one of those rare people in the industry that nobody has a bad word to say about.”
Varvatos called Witkowski “one of the most special people I have ever known. He was one of my best friends for 28 years. I met him at Merona, was with him at Calvin Klein and Polo Jeans and he worked for us a few years ago.”
While he was a superior merchant, Varvatos said there was more to Witkowski than that. “It’s not just his business acumen and eye that people will miss,” he said. “Don lived life with a half-full kind of attitude. He was a positive guy with a great sense of humor and was a great connector of people.”
Michael Kors said, “Don had an amazing eye, loved fashion and had that rare combination of smarts and humor. He was always filled with curiosity for what was next. I consider it a privilege to have been his friend and to have worked together for so many years.”
John Idol, chairman and ceo of Michael Kors Holdings, added: “Don had an incredible passion for work, for people, for life. He also had a great sense of humor that inspired all those that worked with him.”
Grossman said she’d known Witkowski since she was 26, when they worked together at Jeffrey Banks. When she went to Ralph Lauren and launched Polo Jeans, Witkowski joined her there and spent five years with the brand.
“He threw me my 40th birthday party. I remember everyone wearing white printed T-shirts saying: ‘Mindy is 40.’ He was brilliant for his creativity and business acumen combined,” she said, along with his sense of humor. “He became close friends with my entire family. He was one of those people you thought was invincible and unstoppable, so it’s a bit surreal. He was such a special human being and it’s hard to believe that he can be gone.”
Karen Murray, ceo of Sequential Brands Group, said she worked with Witkowski at DKNY. “He was a dear friend and a great businessman with a phenomenal spirit, great energy level, taste level and sincerity. I have so many memories — he planned my 50th birthday party. From the moment we met when we collaborated at DKNY, we became fast friends. And Don and Bobby’s relationship was always one to be admired. He will be missed.”
Witkowski was born in Cleveland in 1951 and attended Kent State University as a psychology major. While in school, he worked for May Department Stores Co. and joined the training program after graduating. After five years, he moved to New York to work with the Pressman family at Barneys. His first job in wholesale was at Calvin Klein. He joined Grossman at Polo Jeans, which led to a position as president of men’s at Donna Karan International, where he led the DKNY men’s collection. He then joined Nautica as president before joining Kors for the first time in 2003 for a two-year stint. He also had his own consulting firm, Kona Consult Inc., for a time before joining Varvatos. He rejoined Kors in 2016 as president of men’s wear.
Witkowski was inducted into the Kent State Hall of Fame in 2017, a group that includes Estée Lauder, Oscar de la Renta, Allen Questrom, Ralph Rucci, Dana Buchman and Josie Natori.
He is survived by his husband, Robert, who said he expects to have a memorial service in New York in the third week of June to celebrate Witkowski’s life.