YouTube Star Paul Cantu On the Art of Thrifting

Vicious Vintage With Paul Cantu

“My YouTube success was not at all taught here,” laughs the Polo shirt-clad college Internet sensation sitting before me on a cold November morning just before Thanksgiving break. “That’s probably not what you want to hear.”

But Paul Cantu isn’t denigrating his soon-to-be alma mater. The December graduate with 165,000 YouTube subscribers just feels that the success of his manic, hilarious thrift shopping videos can be traced not to any specific curriculum, but to the environment in which he’s thrived as a studio art major. Sure, he’s practiced his craft in class, like in a duo of videos he filmed from the perspective of a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto and an actual cheetah, but what he’s most thankful for is the opportunity he’s been given at Texas to express himself.

“Being in art school you’re just surrounded with creativity, 100 percent,” Cantu says. “When you have all that creative energy around you and you have world-renowned professors who are willing to give you feedback and introduce you to other artists …” Cantu trails off, collecting his thoughts. “That’s the biggest contribution UT has made.”

Growing up in La Marque, Texas, Cantu didn’t have many opportunities to stand out. His small high school required that students wear uniforms to avoid both gang apparel and the notion of the class disparity that exists in the Galveston County area. He was a funny but quiet kid, valedictorian of his class and a star soccer player who couldn’t wait to move to Austin for art school. Once the school uniform came off, the possibilities to look, in Cantu’s words, “ferociously flamboyant fuego,” were endless.

In high school I didn’t really have that much bread. And I thought, how can I look fashionable for a budget?

Inspired by YouTube videos of people finding cool clothes for cheap at thrift stores, Cantu sought to do even better. He’d bring his irreverent sense of humor along for the ride, use his self-taught video and sound editing skills, and pad his wardrobe with even better finds along the way.

“In high school I didn’t really have that much bread,” Cantu says. “And I thought, how can I look fashionable for a budget?

His YouTube following was modest at first, but he kept plugging away, learning new tricks for his videos, developing his on-camera persona, and making sure to keep cranking out content. After uploading two to three videos a week, his following grew to 1,000 during his sophomore year. As his videos became even funnier, more ridiculous, and filled with even more great finds for next to nothing in price, his subscribers hit 6,000 in the summer of 2014, a nice number, but nothing earth-shattering. Then he started finding crazy items in stores: Air Jordan 3 Pure Money sneakers, a Commes des Garçons polo, and designer gear from Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, which helped him gain even more traction with fashion-heads.

He was getting recognized in thrift stores all over the country, in California and Dallas, and in random malls where he wasn’t filming and he obviously wasn’t thrifting. At this time last year, his subscriber count was 20,000. That number has octupled during his last term at UT. Cantu chalks it up to persistence and the increasing quality of his finished product.

His own harshest critic, though, Cantu doesn’t feel like he’s operating at full capacity yet. He says, “I feel like I’m at 60 percent right now.”

So what will 100 percent look like?

“Professional camera quality. Lookbook style. Dope pans, chops to beats. Every time you hear the beat stutter,” Cantu mimics a snare drum sound. “Chh, chh, chh. It’ll switch the frame. It’s going to be completely insane.”


He is also preparing for a move back to the Gulf Coast after graduation, where he’ll keep pumping out video content as he prepares to buy a warehouse in Houston, where he’ll repair and recycle thrift finds and create clothes of his own. Cantu also bought a 1997 Ford Aerostar for cheap—”the thrift chariot”—that he decked out with new rims and a sound system. He plans on filming a video akin to a DIY, budget version of MTV’s Pimp My Ride.

“I’m the process of pimping it out, showing people how you can get a car for cheap, and make it look … ” Cantu’s eyes widen and he thrusts forward in his chair, “Amazing for cheap!”

“Amazing for cheap” is a pretty good summation of Cantu’s mission. After growing up poor, he recognizes that people can’t always afford to look like they want to, and that can lead to feeling left out. Some of the finds from his videos are available at his website, for prices cheaper, he says, than at Goodwill or Buffalo Exchange. Cantu says he thinks there’s a ton of great clothing out there that people don’t know about, and he feels a responsibility to bring it to them.

“I like hooking people up with deals,” Cantu says. “It’s also [about] recycling clothes. I’m the biggest advocate for people not going into a store and buying something new that people in China or some other country are getting paid next to nothing to create.”

In some of his videos, he’s not even out looking for new items; he’s taking items he previously bought and showing people how to repair and refurbish them to make them look brand new. In one video, he shows how Crest 3D Whitestrips and Old Spice body wash can make hi-top sneakers look fresh out of the box. In another, he gives a tutorial on how to acid-wash tired old snapback caps. From the quiet kid who couldn’t afford to look cool and wasn’t allowed to wear what he wanted for most of his life, to an Internet-famous style icon looking to bring his vicious vintage to an ever-increasing audience, Cantu has some words of wisdom to people trapped in the mundanity of everyday life.

“Create the world that you want to live in,” Cantu says, matter-of-factly. “That’s what it’s about.”

Photos courtesy Paul Cantu


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