Target is already a huge player in the kids universe. Now it wants to rule it.

The Minneapolis-based merchant hopes to become king of the hill with its biggest-ever private-label apparel brand launch: Cat & Jack, a 2,000-piece line for babies and kids. It's the brainchild of Target's designers, with lots of input from children themselves, and will begin setting in stores later this month as families begin to think about back-to-school shopping.

In the new line, dinosaurs and space are themes not just for the boys, but for girls, too. Kids can express who they are through cupcake-shaped patches, graphic tees with positive messaging, and playful statement pieces such as sweatshirts with monster hoods and tutu-like skirts with colorful balls on them.

The top-to-bottom overhaul of Target's kids departments includes everything down to the fixtures. Display tables will be lower to the ground within better view and reach of children — and the mannequins will have faces because kids found the headless ones Target was using before to be, well, just plain creepy.

Cat & Jack is aimed at pleasing parents, too, with features such as reinforced knees and a new proprietary "Tough Cotton" finish to make pants and leggings less prone to rips. Plus, the line has more versatile items that can be mixed and matched instead of having to buy different outfits for church and the playground.

Target executives are banking that, at the very least, the Cat & Jack line will add up to more than $1 billion in sales in the first year. More than that, they are hoping it will become one of the retailer's growth engines going forward — with the potential to become the biggest kids apparel brand in the U.S.

But it will have to best a number of industry heavyweights such as Wal-Mart, Carter's, and Children's Place to clinch the No. 1 spot.

Overhauling an area of strength

Unlike many of Target's other recent initiatives aimed at fixing weaknesses — such as its website and the grocery department — the launch of Cat & Jack is especially notable in that Target is reinventing an area of its business where it was already strong. And in the process, it's tossing out two other longtime in-house children's brands — Circo and Cherokee — that have become reputable, well-known names to shoppers over the years.

There's risk in doing that, of course. But executives are confident the bet will pay off.

"We thought we had an opportunity to make it even better," said Julie Guggemos, Target's senior vice president of design and product development. "So we started from complete scratch — a clean slate."

Under Chief Executive Brian Cornell, Target has been more strategic in deciding where to focus its investments, namely into its so-called signature categories of baby, kids, wellness and style. Those are the areas most important to the demographic that Target is most interested in courting — millennial moms.

The first major step in the overhauling of its kids business was the introduction earlier this year of a new kids home decor brand called Pillowfort, which has led to a 15 percent bump in sales in that part of the store since it launched.

Last September, Cornell gave the design team the green light to develop Cat & Jack, with the mandate to move at a quicker pace to bring it to life than Target has in the past.

"These are big innovations — they are really big steps forward for us," Cornell told the Star Tribune earlier this year. "The team is doing a great job of moving with greater speed and agility, but still making sure we step back and let the guest guide the journey, which is a great combination."

Target is not done. It's already working on two other smaller brand launches for 2017 — a more fashion-focused kids line and a baby line that will have some tie-ins to nursery and home décor.

Listening to customers

As it goes about designing new and current products, Target is paying closer attention than ever before to what customers have to say. It hasn't always been that way.

Amy Koo, an analyst for Kantar Retail, notes that Target used to be more of a dictator of style. But as customers have grown more vocal on social media and its sales had begun to suffer in recent years, Target has adopted a more inclusive and collaborative approach. For example, with its plus-size line Ava & Viv, which it rolled out last year, Target enlisted the feedback of prominent bloggers who had been critical of Target in the past and ended up becoming the public face of the brand.

"They have enough humility to admit they need to listen more," Koo said. "It's a different philosophy for Target."

Target executives have gone as far as visiting customers' homes as part of a listening tour. Target also recently launched its own app called Studio Connect, still in beta, that allows select customers to give its design team instant feedback on prints and patterns and other new products in the works.

When it came to Cat & Jack, Target reached out to more than 1,000 kids across the country who were part of focus groups, who walked the stores with GoPros to help the team see things from their perspective and who voted on T-shirt slogans and designs.

Last fall, Target held a kids fair with fourth- and fifth-graders from Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul where its team picked their brains and asked them to design their ideal outfits.

"It always had this wow factor — something an adult would never think of," said Guggemos, pointing to a ruffled pink and peach cape that is part of the Cat & Jack collection as an example. "They would draw a straight T-shirt and leggings and then they'd put a fun skirt on it. … We sat there and thought, 'Wow, how do we give ourselves permission to be that creative and bring that much joy in the items we design?' It just really rallied the team to take it to the next level."

Circo and Cherokee, in contrast, were much more traditional and didn't take as many fashion leaps.

At the same time, Target's designers have been mindful that the clothes, in fit and shape, are not too sexy. A couple of years ago, a blogger made headlines when she took Target to task for girls' clothes she thought were too revealing.

"We really wanted to protect the essence of a child being a child," Guggemos said. "It's not about kids growing up too fast."

Sustainability is part of the picture

To lure shoppers away from other more boutique-y kids stores, Target also has added elements of sustainability that it knows resonates with those consumers. The pockets in Cat & Jack jeans are made of a fiber called Repreve, which is made out of recycled plastic bottles. In addition, about 20 pieces in the baby collection are made from Global Organic Textile Standard-certified organic cotton, which ensures that, among other things, the dyes and oils are biodegradable.

In the kids apparel world, manufacturers tend to go one of two routes, said Stephanie Wissink, an analyst with Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray. They either design it for kids or they shrink adult fashions to childlike sizes.

"So if skinny jeans are in, you make skinny jeans for kids," Wissink said. "It's dressing your children as mini-me."

In the past, Target landed more in the mini-me school of thought. But Cat & Jack seems to be more of a blend of the two approaches, she said.

Still, it won't be easy for Target to nudge out its competitors to reign supreme in the marketplace for kids.

"But it's definitely possible," Wissink said. "If anybody can pull it off, Target can."

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113