Meet our new Bergen County hero, 22-year-old Wyckoff resident Ashley Marion Mortensen, who recently graduated (with a 3.4 GPA, no less!) with a degree in fashion studies from Montclair State University and, for the last year, has been running her online apparel business, WishList by AM, while battling the rare disease AVM (short for arteriovenous malformation), a tangle of blood vessels that can be life-threatening.
While most AVMs are found in the brain, Mortensen’s congenital form of the disease manifested in the left side of her face, causing it to grow larger. After a series of surgeries as a kid, she had the disease under control in her teen years but began a new set of challenging treatments at age 18, which have required her to undergo a staggering 31 operations in the last four years alone.
Despite it all, Mortensen is a go-getter with a fantastically impressive positive attitude who is confident that the worst is behind her. Now, fresh off completing college on time despite all those health setbacks, she’s ready to grow her business, where she sells apparel she designs and sews herself via her retail site and house parties, and hopes to eventually donate a portion of the proceeds to AVM research. Mortensen shared her amazing story with Bergen Mama. Get ready to be inspired.
How did you learn to sew and design clothes?
I had always looked up to my great grandma as a child because she was a master at sewing. I would make my American Girl doll clothes and always be playing around with different ideas. When I got to high school, my school offered a fashion class where we would sew. This was the first time I had officially been taught how to sew. It just came to me naturally. My high school teacher would enter me in contests because of how well I had picked up the skill. I continued this all four years of high school and into college. A few classes I took in college that truly helped me with my business were draping, pattern making and fashion branding. During my freshman year of college, I began working at a sewing school and teaching the skill to younger children. I was constantly sewing and furthering my knowledge.
How did you come up with the idea for WishList by AM?
During the hardest of times of my malformation, I was extremely disfigured, and I would go to school and work and nothing else because I was so self-conscious. Every day was a struggle to look in the mirror and get ready. I did not want to go to school and work because of how I looked, but I knew if I did not that I would wind up being depressed so I fought through that every day. I turned to fashion to help me feel better about my appearance. I had always dreamed of having my own clothing line, but with everything I had going on, I never had the time. I wanted to make and design pieces that were comfortable and cute at the same time. I wanted people to feel good in my clothes and feel that much better about themselves.
Who are your customers?
My customers are a wide variety of ages, but most are between 20 and 40. I feel I have something that will flatter everyone. I have an online store, but the majority of my sales come from the house parties that I book. For these parties, the host [reaches] out to me and we plan a date together. I bring my inventory and racks and do all of the set up. The host invites friends and family, and it winds up being a day of shopping with loved ones. It’s a lot of fun being able to interact with the customers.
Any best sellers?
I actually have been super-successful with all of the styles I have made. Depending on the season, my OverSized Vest has been my best seller in the fall and winter and my Halter Tops in the spring and summer. My all-around seasonal best sellers have been my Jumbo Traditional Scarf thanks to the mass versatility of this scarf.
What are you most proud of?
I design, pattern and sew all of my garments. I am constantly adding new designs, styles and fabrics to my brand. I sometimes will have my grandma and aunt come and help me cut my patterns and do some sewing, but the majority of the work I do myself. I want everything to be just right and super high quality.
Tell us a little bit about your experience with AVM in recent years.
From 12 until 18, my AVM was under control for the most part, however, we noticed the left side of my face had been growing. After much research, we had found a new group of doctors who are practically famous in the doctor world. I began a new set of treatments with these doctors, however, every time they would go in for surgery, they would find more and more obstacles. My face began growing larger and more disfigured as the days went on. I lost control of my left facial muscles and lost my confidence. A characteristic of AVMs is that when you start to treat and remove pieces of the malformation, it will either settle down and be controlled or it comes back with vengeance. Mine came back full force. I had always had nose bleeds since I was a baby, but after my treatments began, my nose would bleed out of control. As a result, I would pass out and need multiple blood transfusions. My surgeons and I tried every option multiple times. We tried embolization, excision, cancer drugs and so much more but nothing seemed to be working. Our last and final option was to treat my malformation as cancer and take everything out of my face, anything that could have possibly been taken over by my disease. This included soft tissues, the muscles, the skin, everything. After this surgery, I woke up in shock. I went from having my face so large to having half of my face taken out. I was disfigured in a totally different way. My doctors had then explained to me that I had multiple different AVMs feeding each other and in places they had never seen before, which is why it could not have been controlled.
How do you feel today?
I am 100 percent on the other side of things. I no longer fear for my life every day. I feel that I survived for a reason and that it wasn't my time because I have something special to offer. People seem to turn to me when they are going through hard times because they know how much I have been through and how strong I am for fighting.
What’s next for WishList by AM?
I have been adjusting my line from a one-size-fits-most to having an additional sizes and lengths to accommodate all different sizes and shapes. I have also been in contact with my doctors and looking into AVM research in order to give back and help others along the way. My ultimate goal is to help people feel good in their own skin while helping those who suffer from the same disease as I have all my life.
Where do you see your business a year from now?
I see my business growing, growing enough to give a portion of my proceeds back to AVM research. I am who I am today because of my AVM, and I want to do anything I can to help those who are in a similar [situation]. My dream is to make a difference. If my proceeds make a difference for AVM research, I’ll know in my heart for that reason alone I was meant to beat my AVM, beat the odds. I made it for a reason, and I believe this could be my reason.