By Rasheed Clarke
Ashley Freeborn, co-founder of loungewear company Smash + Tess, on adversity from Crohn’s disease, running a business with her best friends, and being a new mom.
On the night of her master’s degree comprehensive exam, Ashley Freeborn couldn't stop vomiting. Then there was the cramping. And the diarrhea. And the bleeding. And the dehydration. And nervousness ahead of a major academic test couldn’t explain all the symptoms.
The night of her comprehensive exam was the culmination of several years of on and off digestive problems. But it wasn’t until six months later, and after shedding 40 lbs, that then-29-year-old Ashley received a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease.
“The doctor who first diagnosed me had zero bedside manner,” recalls Ashley. “Shortly after my colonoscopy was completed, he proceeded to tell me of all of the negative consequences of having this disease. Including that it might be difficult to have children. To be honest, it felt like my life was coming to a screeching halt.”
But life did carry on for Ashley. She completed her Master’s Degree, established herself professionally in corporate training and culture, and moved from her hometown of Vancouver to Los Angeles to further her career. All the while, medications kept her Crohn’s disease symptoms at bay.
While her day job was fulfilling, Ashley still felt the need to express her creativity, and fashion became her outlet of choice. She enrolled in a summer fashion program at Condé Nast in London, then got to talking with her mother, Teresa.
“Matching pajamas have been one of our favourite traditions on Christmas morning since we can remember,” says Ashley. “But as the years went by, we found it harder and harder to find cute, comfortable loungewear that we truly loved.”
The mother-daughter duo formed Smash + Tess
and set out to create a line of stylish loungewear. Shortly after, Ashley’s childhood best friend, Mercedes LaPorte, jumped on board. Their teamwork made their rompers a hit, and the company has amassed customers, fans, and social media followers from around the world.
“Working with my mom and my best friend is the best! I’m constantly lifted, inspired, and challenged by both of them,” says Ashley.
Mercedes and Teresa are, of course, more than business partners for Ashley. They’ve been her closest confidants during her struggles with Crohn’s; struggles that until recently she largely kept private.
“I share everything with them, the good and the bad. Lately medications haven’t been able to control my symptoms. I’m generally in pain, bloated, exhausted, and I’ve been losing my hair. Now more than ever, I’ve had to lean on them more as Smash + Tess continues to gain momentum and grow,” says Ashley.
Earlier this year, Mercedes and Teresa nurtured Ashley’s idea to create a special edition romper to mark World Inflammatory Bowel Disease Day. The Bella Burgundy romper
helped raise awareness of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease, and Smash + Tess donated the proceeds from sales of the romper to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada.
“We were thrilled when Ashley got in touch with us,” says Catherine Hinton, Vice President of Development at Crohn’s and Colitis Canada. “The fact that she wanted to use her company’s platform to bring awareness to Crohn’s and colitis, and raise funds in the process, really speaks to her selflessness and desire to help others.”
One person who got her hands on the limited edition piece was Olympic high-jumper and Crohn’s disease advocate, Alyx Treasure, who also helped spread the word about the romper on her Instagram account
“Fundraising with Smash + Tess for this limited edition romper meant so much to me,” says Alyx. “Being made by an amazing woman who also shares the same disease as me made it incredibly special. And I loved the romper! I hate wearing tight clothes, especially on the days my body is being particularly rebellious, and it is has become a staple for me in my wardrobe.”
As her company continues to succeed, Ashley has turned her focus to her health, and her one-year-old daughter, Francesca (a.k.a. Frankie).
“Being a mother with Crohn’s is my biggest challenge for sure. I’ve been quite sick since Frankie was born, so I’ve had to lean on my husband and family more than ever. That means releasing some control and asking for help, which is something that I don’t do easily,” says Ashley.
“But I feel so incredibly fortunate and grateful every day to have a strong, healthy little girl to challenge me and motivate me. I can’t wait to be healthy again so that I’ll have even more energy to dedicate to her.”
When the pain of Crohn’s makes it hard for Ashley to wear something with a waistband, she has a personal stash of rompers to turn to. “It’s stretchy enough and soft enough for easy on and offs,” she says.
And in the midst of all that she has going on, Ashley still wants to help create more understanding in the wider public about inflammatory bowel disease. From her perspective, people may have heard the names Crohn’s and colitis, but they still don’t truly appreciate the impact the chronic diseases have.
“I think many of us struggle with it and don’t talk about it because it’s not a very sexy thing to have. But it’s time that we speak up and share our stories so that the disease is talked about more and, subsequently, more money and effort will be donated towards finding a cure,” says Ashley.
“After years of dealing with the disease, and now having a sweet baby girl, I’ve come to realize that it’s a daily battle and I’m just thankful for the full life that I get to live.”