Last fall, Target Corp. took its first baby steps toward a more gender-neutral store when it took down the "boys" and "girls" signs in its toy and kids' bedding aisles.

Now, the Minneapolis-based retailer is taking it further with a new kids' home décor line that blurs the lines between what is for girls and what is for boys. The new Target brand, Pillowfort, will hit stores later this month and will replace another longtime in-house brand, Circo, as part of a top-to-bottom shake-up of the retailer's kids' business as Target looks to reclaim its style edge.

"It was an aisle of pink, fairy princesses, ponies and flowers," Julie Guggemos, Target's senior vice president of design and product development said of Target's current offerings for children's bedrooms. "And for the boys it was rockets and dinosaurs. Well, you know what? Girls like rockets and basketball. And boys like ponies.

"Who are we to say what a child's individual expression is? We really wanted to develop a collection that would be universal."

There will still be pink and blue found in Pillowfort products — just less of it. The prints and patterns are more open-ended: trees, arrows, astronauts and bicycles. And motifs that traditionally have had a more gender-specific bent, such as basketballs, hearts, and alligators are more up for grabs with more neutral colors such as white, black and yellow.

As she gave the Star Tribune an exclusive sneak peek at the products laid out on the 26th floor of Target's Nicollet Mall headquarters, Guggemos picked up items that can appeal to either gender such as accent pillows in the shapes of a cactus and an octopus.

"All of this right here is gender-neutral," she said, gathering up about half of the assortment of bedsheets. "This could go boy or girl."

Target executives note that they didn't start Pillowfort with a gender agenda in mind. Rather, they say, the approach is being driven by consumers.

"It gets back to listening to mom, understanding what she's looking for from Target and making sure we're delivering the products and the content that's going to be right," Chief Executive Brian Cornell said.

It was customer feedback in the form of social-media posts criticizing Target's gender-based signs that initially led Target to rethink those aisle markers. While that move was greeted with cheers by many, it was also met with boos from some who asserted there's nothing wrong with more traditional gender roles. Others complained that the gender-based signs helped guide them to buy appropriate gifts. In a nod to that concern, Target will still have girls and boys bedding search terms on its website when Pillowfort launches, though there will be an overlap in products under those two categories.

"They're making bold moves," said Carol Spieckerman, a retail consultant. "You can't do that without alienating some people. One person's helpful guidance is another person's controlling prescription."

When it came to developing Pillowfort, the yearning for more gender-neutral colors and patterns was a theme Target's designers and researchers heard again and again.

They saw it reflected in the collages they asked kids to create of their ideal bedrooms. They heard it from families when they visited customers' homes in Chicago and Los Angeles and from parents who asked Target to make colors more neutral when paring down the final list of prints. And they saw it when they held a kids fair and asked them to choose their favorite patterns.

"Girls were picking prints that the boys picked and vice versa," Guggemos said. "They're not afraid to express who they are. We picked up on that right away and decided we were getting in our own way a little bit with some of those paradigms … It's time to change."

Target will begin rolling out a major advertising push later this month to market Pillowfort that include Pinterest pages and a TV spot, which ends with a scene of a young girl in a space-themed bedroom lying in bed dreamily looking up at the ceiling.

The next phase in Target's overhaul of its kids' business is a new apparel line expected to hit stores this summer. It will replace Target's licensed Cherokee and in-house Circo brands. While the retailer isn't going so far as adopting a unisex or androgynous approach, a spokesman said some common themes emerged in focus groups. For instance, test groups of boys and girls both liked T-shirt ideas that had a science motif.

Beyond pink and purple

Target isn't the only one taking a fresh look at whether gender distinctions are still needed in certain parts of retail. Last year, the Disney Store created buzz when it began marketing its Halloween costumes for "kids" instead of for boys or girls.

A recent report by the NPD Group noted that millennials are more open-minded about gender and are helping fuel a rising trend in a gender-free fashion market. While much of that is still among more niche or high-end fashion lines such as Marc Jacobs and Prada, there are also signs of it among mainstream brands such as North Face and Patagonia. And brands that were once more male-oriented, such as Converse and Vans, now have more universal appeal.

Christia Spears Brown, a University of Kentucky psychology professor and author of "Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes,"has seen a groundswell among parents looking for less constrictive options for their kids, a counter-response to toy manufacturers' increased use of pink in products as a quick appeal to girls. When she went shopping for a bike for her daughter, she was frustrated the only options came in pink and purple.

"It's not about rejecting pink. It's saying 'Does everything I own have to be pink or purple?'" Brown said. "There's a real disconnect between telling girls they can be anything when they grow up and yet the only thing marketed to them comes in one color."

Of course, there's still a strong contingency of girls who love princesses. "There's a reason Frozen is so popular," she said. "But you also see a lot of girls that don't fit that mold."

If Target's approach ends up being successful, Brown added, it could influence other retailers and manufacturers.

The lack of product diversity at mainstream retailers has led Shaynah Dodge, a mother of three boys in Plymouth, to shop at online children's boutiques to find more neutral decor for her children's bedrooms, which are currently adorned with star-themed sheets. Her sons are already engrossed in sports, so she searched out other themes for their rooms to reflect other parts of their personalities.

"I don't want to push only superheroes on them," said Dodge, who has over 50,000 followers on her Instagram feed Ruffled Snob. "I want my kids to be well-rounded."

Billion-dollar bets

Target isn't getting rid of princesses and superheroes. It will still carry a large assortment of licensed brands such as Star Wars and My Little Pony in the kids' home department and apparel.

The Pillowfort collection hits stores on Feb. 21 and will include about 1,200 items, about 400 of which will be carried in the store. The rest, including a large furniture assortment, will be available at

Executives see a lot of potential with Pillowfort, especially since they say there aren't a lot of other options on the market that tap into the Pinterest-like design sensibility for children's bedrooms at more value prices. Many of the biggest competitors in this space are more from specialty and high-end retailers. So with Pillowfort, Target aims to double its kids' home business within the next three years.

Next on Target's to-do list is the overhaul of its kids' apparel business. The company will be saying goodbye to two of its longtime billion-dollar brands, Circo and Cherokee, and will replace those with a new in-house brand. That move is surprising to some given that Target's kids' apparel business is already pretty strong.

"They are making a really big bet in completely changing something that a lot of retailers would not consider to be broken in the first place," said Spieckerman, adding that Circo and Cherokee have some loyalty built up behind them. "I would even say it's risky."

But Target executives aren't sweating it. It's part of a new "teardown" approach to the most important parts of its business. Under Cornell, the company is looking to reinvent its business in its so-called signature categories of kids, baby, style and wellness. A grocery makeover is also in the works. Other parts of its business will get a similar treatment down the road.

"A new brand signals change," said Target's Guggemos. "We have a general belief that you can't keep doing what you've been doing to move the needle."

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113