Brave step: A live collection from Alexander McQueen whose internet show crashed because of high demand / AFP
As the collections start, Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive

It's difficult – or rather, stupid – to try to pinpoint trends before designers have even shown a stitch of clothing. Fashion is a paradoxical industry, a contrary beast, justifying much of its inherent spectacle via the value of mass media exposure as opposed to the garments they sell (the much-photographed but barely bought Parisian haute couture shows being the perfect example), and yet shrouding itself in utmost secrecy until the big reveal on the catwalk.

On Wednesday, that all begins, as designers start to show their womenswear collections for spring/summer 2015. New York kicks off, followed in rapid succession by London, Milan and Paris, four weeks crammed with thousands of shows, tens of thousands of outfits, and billions of pounds' worth of industry.

In the UK alone, the industry is valued at £26bn and employs nearly 800,000 – more than the telecommunications, automobile manufacturing and publishing industries combined. Those hard economic facts highlight one often overlooked aspect: for all the glamour, the international collections are one enormous trade show, designers showcasing their wares with varying degrees of success. These shows make the worldwide, trillion-dollar fashion business go round.

If there's one trend emerging ahead of this season, however, it's to chafe at the traditional restrictions of those shows. Indeed, in an age of increasing digital proficiency, many question the need for these vast and vastly expensive showcases. "You can't defend it, in a way," says Nick Knight, the fashion photographer whose website has streamed a variety of live fashion shows since its inception in 2000. "You can't put a case for it that says, 'Actually I had to sit on a front row of a show.' Who's that for?"

The designer Gareth Pugh agrees. "I'm thinking about how I can do things differently. Because I am getting a little frustrated with showing my stuff in a fashion show," he says. In the past, he has showcased his work as video installations rather than catwalk presentations in Paris, and via a video installation in New York fashion week for spring 2010. He characterised that as a "mood board", a preview of the meat-and-potatoes fashion show he staged four weeks later in Paris.

This Thursday, he is showing what he described to The New York Times as an "immersive live performance" on the second day of the city's shows. He's calling on the services of choreographer Wayne McGregor (and the sponsorship of Lexus) to make it happen. It will include some of his spring/summer 2015 collection, but not the whole thing.

"I always have this dry sense of dissatisfaction with what I do, but that's an important thing to have because it always spurs me on to do something else," Pugh says.

"But to always put across an image that doesn't bear any sort of relevance to what I actually wanted to initially do, I think …" and his voice trails away. He isn't happy.

It seems that other designers have been feeling the same. The American brand Opening Ceremony, an offshoot of the boutique of the same name headed by Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, creative directors of Kenzo, have eschewed the catwalk too for spring. This season, the show will be conducted via a one-act play, directed by Spike Jonze, co-written by Jonah Hill and featuring a mix of actors and models.

In London there's a thriving selection of talent taking advantage of presentation slots rather than fully fledged catwalks shows. J W Anderson started his life on the schedule there; this season marks the debut of Ashley Williams, a Fashion East graduate with friends (Harry Styles, Pixie Geldof) in the right places (the front page of most tabloids).

Lazaro Hernandez, one half of Proenza Schouler, a label that shows towards the close of New York's fashion week, reasons that "the shows are the branding and an image that is sold – but is not really a huge chunk of the business". They, as with most other designers, count pre-collection sales as about 70 per cent of their business. The show is the dazzling bit, to create the arresting editorial image.

Is a catwalk show still the best way to do that? Possibly not – at least judging by the above indications. They all still have heavyweight PR value (Spike Jonze and Harry Styles are pretty hefty), and they're certainly not a cut-price alternative to a show. And, of course, the internet opens up the possibilities to reach many more viewers whose demands are more akin to music video entertainment than traditional show formats.

"You start to get through to the new audience. You're now dealing, not with 300 people or 3,000 or 30,000, but with 30 million people," says Nick Knight.

He's exaggerating, a little, but when broadcast Alexander McQueen's spring/summer 2010 collection, the site crashed because of the traffic. As for the material concerns, Knight is somewhat blasé. "You can't feel the fabric? Well, no, you can't feel the fabric, but tough – you've got to go and visit it in the showroom."

It remains to be seen whether this tiptoeing away from traditional formats is a full-on revolution. Still, it's sizing up to be an interesting round of "shows". Let's just hope the garments make it all worthwhile. Flush out the celebrities, choreographers and playwrights: clothes are the real reason we're watching, after all.